Hi Mark Fregnan here. I’ve always been interested in start-up business success stories, so here’s another good one…
The Monopoly Book by Maxine Brady
The stock market crash of 1929 caused mass unemployment for millions of Americans. For Charles Darrow, the financial problems grew increasingly difficult. Once a salesman of heating and engineering equipment, he spent the early 1930s looking for a job. He’d been feeding himself, his wife, and their son by taking any odd job he could find. He repaired electric irons, did occasional fix-it jobs, even walked dogs – when he could find someone to pay him for his labors.
It wasn’t enough, though. Now his wife was expecting their second child. He had to find a way to make more money.
To fill his idle hours, and help him forget his worries temporarily, Darrow invented things. Some of them were fun; others were probably devised in hopes that they would become profitable. He made jigsaw puzzles; he created a combination bat-and-ball, which was supposed to be used as a beach toy; he designed an improved pad for recording and scoring bridge games. They were interesting diversions, but nobody was willing to pay for them.
Darrow’s problem, of course, was not unique. Many of his friends and family were out of jobs, and were having trouble affording even such necessities as food and shelter. For them, as for most people, the movies, the theater, and any form of entertainment which cost any money at all was too expensive.
So they got together in the evenings and on weekends, when the offices of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were closed, and they talked. And after the gloomy recital of that day’s particular troubles, the conversation would usually become nostalgic: remember the good old days?
Darrow did. For him and his wife, thinking back to the more prosperous life they had led only a few years before, some of the pleasant memories were of the vacations they had spent at one of their favorite holiday places, a seaside resort in New Jersey called Atlantic City.
One evening in 1930, Darrow sat down at his kitchen table in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and sketched out some of the street names of Atlantic City on the round piece of oilcloth that covered the table. The streets he chose were all from the same side of the city: between the Inlet and Park Place, along the Boardwalk. When he finished, Darrow was short one name, so he choose Marven Gardens, a section from nearby Margate. Probably unintentionally, he altered the spelling, and it was penciled onto his board as Marvin Gardens.
He included the three railroads that carried the wealthy vacationers to the resort, and the utility companies that serviced them, as well as the parcels of real estate of varying prices. He wanted a fourth railroad to make his board symmetrical, so he added the Short Line: actually it was a freight-carrying bus company that had a depot in Atlantic City. A local paint store gave him free samples of several colors, and he used them to color his game board. A new game began to take form in his mind.
Darrow cut houses and hotels for his little city, using scraps of wooden molding that a lumber yard had discarded. He rounded up stray pieces of cardboard, and typed out title cards for the different properties. The rest of the equipment was fairly easy to acquire: colored buttons for the tokens, a pair of dice, and a lot of play money.
From then on, in the evenings, the Darrows would sit around the kitchen table buying, renting, developing, and selling real estate. They had little enough real cash on hand, yet The Game, as they all referred to it, permitted them to manipulate large sums of money as they engaged in complex negotiations to acquire valuable blocks of property. The simple, almost crude set exerted a continuing fascination and challenge. As friends dropped in to visit, they were invited to join the game. Soon the “Monopoly evenings” became a standard feature at the Darrow home.
Then the friends wanted to take the game home with them. Each night’s winner, a bit heady with his success in the nether reaches of high finance, asked for a set of his own, so that he could show off his financial wizardry. The runner-up, convinced that he could win the next time if he could only hone his skill with a little practice, generally wanted a set too. Darrow had an overabundance of free time, so he began making copies of his board, property cards, and buildings. His delighted friends supplied their own dice and tokens, and often their own package of play money.
But the demand increased, and Darrow increased his output to two handmade sets a day. Selling them for $4 apiece, each set brought him new customers. People kept talking about the new game and playing it with their friends. Through word-of-mouth advertising alone, Darrow sold about one hundred sets, and had orders for many more. But his one-at-a-time production technique simply couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Encouraged by his friends, Darrow decided to test the game outside his personal sphere of acquaintances and friends of friends. He made up a few sets and offered them to department stores in Philadelphia, the nearest city. They sold.
With the knowledge that his game was marketable, he attempted to increase his rate of production. A friend helped out by printing the Monopoly boards and the title cards. Darrow continued to paint in the colors and assemble the sets by hand. This partial automation enabled him to produce six games a day. It wasn’t enough.
By 1934, now fully aware that his interesting diversion had turned into a potentially profitable business, Darrow arranged to have the same friend print and package the complete sets. It looked like they had the problem solved, for a little while. Production was finally keeping pace with sales. But they hadn’t reckoned with the Philadelphia sales. Soon, a department store began ordering sets wholesale, in quantities far greater than anything they could accommodate. It became obvious to Darrow that he had only two choices. He could borrow money and plunge wholeheartedly into the game business, or he could sell Monopoly to an established game company. Darrow wrote to Parker Brothers, then as now one of the world’s major game manufacturers and distributors, to see if the company would be interested in producing and marketing the game on a national basis.
Parker brothers had by then been in business for half a century, and had become accustomed to enthusiastic inventors sending in new game creations. Some of the ideas had even proven marketable, but, by and large, the company’s managers tended to trust the creativity of their own staff far more than they did an unproven novice.
Although Parker Brothers thought the basic framework of the game seemed possibly interesting, they handled the game routinely. Various members of the company sat down at their offices in Salem, Massachusetts, to try it out, as they do all prospective games. They played it several times and found that they all enjoyed it. But the company had evolved a set of inviolable ground rules for “family games,” which they held to be mandatory for any game that could be successfully marketed. According to the Parker precept, a family game should last approximately forty-five minutes. Monopoly could go on for hours. Parker also felt that a game should have a specific end, a goal to be achieved. (In their other board games, the players’ tokens progressed around a track until they reached the end – which might be symbolized by a pot of gold, a home port, a jackpot, or even Heaven – and the first player to reach this goal was the winner.) In Monopoly, the players just kept going round and round the board. The only goal was to bankrupt the other players and emerge still solvent yourself. Furthermore, Monopoly’s rules seemed far too complex to the Parker staff; they thought the general game-playing public would be hopelessly confused trying to learn how to handle mortgages, rents, and interest.
After testing the game for several weeks, Parker Brothers made the unanimous decision to reject it. The company wrote and informed Darrow of this decision, explaining that his game contained “fifty-two fundamental errors.” It would never be accepted by the public.
Darrow, of course, was considerably annoyed. He knew very well how people responded to his game. Despite Parker Brothers’ analysis, Monopoly was decidedly marketable. Unfortunately, however, it was far more marketable than Darrow himself; he was still unemployed. Monopoly, it seemed, was virtually his only asset.
Therefore, he went back to his printer friend, ordered the production of five thousand sets, and continued to sell the game locally. But locally included Philadelphia, and the department stores there were soon aware that Darrow was increasing his output. They began placing massive orders for the Christmas season. Darrow now found himself working fourteen hours a day just trying to keep up with the shipping.
With the game now being ordered in wholesale lots, Parker’s sales representatives soon became acutely aware that the Philadelphia stores were expecting huge sales of Monopoly the following Christmas, the traditional game-buying season. Word was quickly passed back to corporate headquarters in Salem, where the issue was deemed worthy of reconsideration. Then, to top things off, a major New York toy and game store, the prestigious F. A. O. Schwarz, bought two hundred sets out of the original five thousand printing.
Shortly afterwards, a friend telephoned Saly Barton (daughter of Parker Brothers’ founder, George Parker) to rave about a wonderful new game she had purchased at F. A. O. Schwarz. It was called Monopoly, and it was hard to come by and in short supply. The friend suggested that Mrs. Barton tell Parker Brothers about it. Sally did. She told her husband, Robert B. M. Barton, who happened to be the president of the company. Curious about a competitor’s product, he purchased a copy of the game at F. A. O. Schwarz, took it home and wound up playing it until 1 A.M. The next day, Barton wrote to Darrow, and three days later they met at Parker Brothers’ New York sales office in the Flatiron Building.
Parker Brothers offered to buy the game outright and give Darrow royalties on all sets sold. The company insisted, though, on making some revisions which would refine the game and clarify the rules. Some of the staff were still concerned about the indefinite playing time, so they agreed to market the original version as long as Darrow permitted them to develop a variation of the game which could be played in less time. This shorter version was to be printed along with the general rules, to give the public an option.
Darrow agreed and the contract was signed. Later, in explaining why he had decided to sell his brainchild, Darrow related his decision to the monetary commitment he would have otherwise had to make in order to keep producing the game himself. “Taking the precepts of Monopoly to heart,” he said, “I did not care to speculate.” Years afterward, commenting on the final offer from Parker Brothers, he wrote: “I gladly accepted and have never regretted that decision.”
The royalties from sales of Monopoly soon made Darrow a millionaire. He retired at the age of forty-six, to become a gentleman farmer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a world traveler with a particular interest in ancient cities, a motion picture photographer, and a collector of exotic orchid species. In 1970, a few years after Darrow’s death, Atlantic City erected a commemorative plaque in his honor. It stands on the Boardwalk, near the juncture of Park Place.