• Archive

How Parker Bros. Created Monopoly Mania

In a bet-the-company strategy in 1935, Parker Brothers decided to put everything it had behind its new game, Monopoly. Good move. An excerpt from The Game Makers.

In accordance with his ninth principle—bet heavily when the odds are long in your favor—George Parker urged [Parker Brothers President Robert] Barton to put all the company's resources behind the Monopoly game and forget making other games. It was better to apply everything Parker Brothers owned to maximize Monopoly shipments given the marketplace's insatiable appetite for the game. He was convinced that every dollar wagered would return a windfall. Unlike his vacillation with Mah-Jongg, this time he would not hesitate and give his opponents a chance to compete. He would redeem himself.

The "flood" began after New Year's Day. The post-Christmas trickle of orders for the Monopoly game turned into a torrent. It seemed that every Monopoly game purchased for Christmas had been played by many people—all of whom wanted their own copy, no matter what their financial plight. So many orders for the Monopoly game arrived in the mail and by telegraph that the firm had to store them in wicker laundry baskets in the hallways. All the workers sent home in December were quickly rehired.

Demand this strong, early in the year, pointed to big success—perhaps the biggest in the long history of his firm. Additional manufacturing and storage space was leased in the city of Salem. Production ramped up. Keeping the books for the deluge of orders soon overwhelmed the small Parker Brothers accounting staff; an outside accounting firm had to be contracted. The first one, a prestigious company in Boston in need of work, took one look at the mountain of uninvoiced sales and politely declined—citing the job as being "impossible."19

The machines inside of Parker Brothers now began to whirl twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Robert Barton persuaded Foster Parker, George's nephew, to leave his auto dealership in Boston and come back to work for Parker Brothers. Barton needed Foster to supervise the nighttime third shift. In appreciation, he was soon elected treasurer. With Foster's help, production reached 20,000 games a week.

Keeping the books for the deluge of orders soon overwhelmed the small Parker Brothers accounting staff.

Foster hired new workers faster than ever before in Parker Brothers history. One of those hired was a wiry seventeen-year-old trade school graduate who could operate a printing press, a self-proclaimed "punk" —an inexperienced kid—named Louis Vanne (at the time, Vanikiotis). Honed by twelve-hour shifts, Vanne quickly became Parkerized. He had been playing basketball one evening when Charlie Splane, foreman of Parker Brothers' small printing department, sought him out. "You want to go to work?" he asked Vanne. "Sure," Vanne replied, thinking he might be needed for a few hours. He soon found himself working the long night shift. The three Miehle printing presses that Barton had purchased were going around the clock. Each was able to print only one color at a time. Two of them were fourteen-foot-long "horizontal" presses, capable of printing big sheets of paper for game board labels and box wraps. The third was a three-foot-long "vertical" press for smaller jobs, such as game rules. Vanne was assigned to one of the horizontal Miehle machines. His goal was to print 20,000 Monopoly game board labels per shift with black ink. His counterpart on the day shift would arrive, clean the press, and then print the same labels with red ink. The next day, the yellow and blue colors were added to complete the job. Box labels were printed in two colors and therefore took two shifts to complete a run. The "scariest" part of the printing came next, when sheets needing varnish were packed up and shipped to Boston. Varnishing sealed the inks, prevented smudging, and offered some protection against spills. It was mainly applied to box labels. When the varnisher didn't set his process correctly, the sheets would stick together, forming a "brick" several feet tall. Vanne was always relieved to see the truck return from Boston with a load of correctly varnished labels. He worked seventy-two hours a week and earned $27. (He was the only member of his family with a job. At home were his unemployed father, mother, and two younger siblings, all of whom now depended on him.) Twenty-seven dollars week was considered a decent wage, even if it did take seventy-two hours to earn it.20

Demand climbed to 35,000 games a week. George continued to encourage Barton, Phelps, Jelly, and Haskell to fill the demand, despite a growing sense of desperation. Instead of looking for printing jobs, they were seeking out printers, assemblers, box makers, and token manufacturers. All of Salem was mobilized to help. So great was the need for production that Barton paid a visit to Father Zubcyk of Saint John's Church in Salem and asked for his support in requesting the State of Massachusetts for permission to work on Sundays. (Parker Brothers' workers were mainly Roman Catholic.) Barton offered one concession. "I'll limit the shifts to seven hours, so your people will have time to attend Mass." Father Zubcyk declined, retorting, "I will only say yes if you run three eight-hour shifts. My people need all the money they can get, and the church needs their contributions. I'll hold Mass around your shifts." Barton smiled and shook Zubcyk's hand. The request to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was approved.21

If the Monopoly game required only printed sheets of paper and cardboard, Barton and company could have satisfied every consumer. Obtaining enough wood houses and hotels was also not a problem. They were made in northern New England and shipped to Salem in potato sacks. To color them, Parker Brothers' woodworking department dumped them into galvanized tubs filled with dye, and dried them under mild heat. The cast metal tokens were made with molds. Parker Brothers' Midwest vendor could acquire as many molds as needed. Box production wasn't an issue as boxes could be made as fast as their labels were printed. There was but one bottleneck in production: the fabrication of game boards.22

Made like a book cover, each game board required two pieces of cardboard to be joined with a cloth hinge, then wrapped with an outer "jacket" before a printed game board label was mounted on the other side. After the finished board was closed, a small printed label was applied to its jacket to identify it as a Monopoly board (important for merchants looking to match the right game board with each box of game utensils sold). Game board manufacturing required special gluing machines, a moving belt, and workers with the right touch to align the labels properly. Parker Brothers had insufficient amounts of all three, so Barton decided to utilize his Toy Manufacturers Association (TMA) relationship with the sales leader of rival Milton Bradley. George A. Fox had co-founded the TMA and he believed in industry cooperation. Furthermore, his firm was still struggling with the impact of the Great Depression. Parker Brothers' recent success had amplified the gap between their sales. For these reasons, Fox was keen to accept Barton's proposition to make Monopoly boards for Parker Brothers. "I know you need this business; I know you'll charge a high price, that's okay," Barton told his friend. But Milton Bradley's board of directors vetoed the idea—competitive practice overruled economic benefit (although Milton Bradley subsequently licensed the Monopoly patent from Parker Brothers in order to market a competitive game—which also enjoyed enduring success—entitled Easy Money). Undeterred, Barton ended up ordering more board-making machines. There being no room for them in the Parker Brothers factory, he made arrangements with shops in Salem to take them in and learn how to make game boards under the direction of his best workers.23

Until this solution could be implemented, Barton decided to suppress demand by raising the price of the standard game from $2.00 to $2.50—an unheard-of increase for its day. This did reduce the inflow of orders until the board-making equipment came on line. A new $2.00 edition was then reintroduced (with smaller money and wooden tokens). Sales took off once more.24

During 1936, Parker Brothers marketed six different versions of the Monopoly game, ranging in price from $2 to $25 ($325 today!). This most expensive set came with a wood game board and a brass-handled chest lined with trays that held the game's components, including Bakelite houses and hotels and metal coins for added money.25 When the Parker Brothers accountants closed the books on 1936, 1,810,000 copies of all editions had been sold and the firm had earned an unprecedented $1,000,000 profit.26 Nineteen thirty-three's nasty loss had been avenged, and then some! Armed with an abundance of cash, Barton struck a deal with a man in Texas named Rudy Copeland for a game called Inflation, which resembled the Monopoly game. He offered a financial arrangement whenever a similar game surfaced. By mid-1936, Barton had, indeed, acquired a "monopoly" on the Monopoly game. George and Barton prevented a flurry of similar games from confusing the market, as had occurred during the Mah-Jongg fad, and they had managed to satisfy the desire of nearly 2 million Americans who wanted to own a copy.27

Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels did not want his party associated with capitalistic wealth and quickly denounced the game.

The cash infusion from Monopoly's sales paid for another two-story extension to the rear of the plant (a third story would later be added). Within its light blue interior came more manufacturing equipment and several more Miehle printing presses, improved layouts for the manufacturing departments, and more office space for the growing managerial staff. Atop hardwood floors, interrupted by massive blue painted wooden posts, light machinery of many types was installed—including one machine that wrapped a sheet of clear, brittle cellophane around the interior of game utensil boxes. This permitted consumers to open the packages in the store and see what was inside without the pieces becoming lost. Cellophane was the third type of plastic used by Parker Brothers (following Celluloid and Bakelite). It had been invented in Switzerland in 1908 and was licensed to the giant DuPont chemical company in 1923 for U.S. manufacture.28

Waddington's enjoyed great sales for its Monopoly versions in both the United Kingdom and France. But in Germany, its licensee (Firma Franz Schmidt) suffered—because the most valuable property on its Berlin-based board (Insel Schwanenwerder) happened to be where most of the Nazi leaders had their homes. Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels did not want his party associated with capitalistic wealth and quickly denounced the game. Leaders of the Hitler Youth petitioned Schmidt to stop producing the game. Ironically, an Allied bombing raid later destroyed the Schmidt warehouse and the remaining copies.29

As 1937 approached, Mah-Jongg and Diabolo once more clouded George Parker's thinking. Remembering how quickly their fads had ended, he grew anxious that the same fate might befall his current bestseller. He wrote Barton to "absolutely cease making" the game in the event of an abrupt end to its popularity. Barton resisted, fortunately. The game continued to sell well in 1937, albeit at half the pace of the prior year, and George's memorandum was posted in the factory for years as a reminder of how the success of the Monopoly game had bewildered even George S. Parker (who, apparently, didn't mind).30

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers From Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit. Copyright 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

[ Buy this book ]

Philip Orbanes is president of Winning Moves Games, located in Danvers, Massachusetts, and author of The Monopoly Companion.


19. Helen Mitchell, interview by Professor John Fox, audiocassette, 5 December 1986.

20. Louis Vanne, interview by author, 14 December 1987; Louis Vanne, interview by Professor John Fox, audiocassette, 4 November 1986.

21. Fox, "Parker Pride."

22. Robert B. M. Barton, interview by author, 13 January 1988; Robert B. M. Barton, interview with Professor John Fox, audiocassette, 27 December 1986.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Parker Brothers catalog, 1936.

26. GSP, pocket diary, appendix, 1937.

27. Robert B. M. Barton, interview by author, 9 January 1988.

28. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (New York: Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998).

29. Michel Matschoss, interview by author, 17 October 2002; Dan Glimne, interview by author, 23-24 March 2003. See also <http://www.muurKrant.nl/monopoly> (accessed 11 July 2003).

30. Louis Vanne, interview by author, 14 December 1987.