Spotlight on Games > Ludographies
The George S. Parker Era 1883-1935
Gaming's Early Years
November 1, 2013 Wonderland

Philip E. Orbanes has done a wealth of research on the history of the Parker Bros. company and published it in The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers, from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit

Let's have a look at these early efforts for history's sake and because of the way developments back then are still strangely echoed today.


One day the teenaged Parker boys were playing one of the games meant to teach a moral lesson, Everlasting, and felt bored. George decided to modify the game by adding lettered cards and a borrowing rule and came up with Banking where the new objective was to become the richest player by winning speculations. A speculation began when a lettered card was played and ended when another card of the same letter was played. The winner was the one who eventually claimed all the cards. To avoid this, players could borrow cards from the bank at 10% interest (borrow ten cards, pay eleven). Partnerships could be formed and profits shared.

Banks were very popular during this period and seen as the way to have a secure fortune as opposed to the unregulated stock and bond exchanges where greed and ruin was documented in the papers every day.

George and his friends liked the game so much that he courageously had 500 copies printed up and successfully peddled them to Massachusetts area retailers, eventually clearing a profit of $80 (worth about $1440 in today's terms).

Hmmm, using cards for dual purposes, one of them money: remind anyone of a recent card game set on a Caribbean island?

Baker's Dozen and Famous Men
Still in high school, George published these two games in his senior year. The second was invented by one of his instructors, a Mr. Morrison. They were not as successful.

Ivanhoe and The Dickens Game
In this year he published his first catalog and arranged for a distributor to carry his games throughout New England. A new concept was born: the tie-in game. Without any explicit licensing of these faraway British authors, he offered card games containing quotations and illustrations based on their works.

The much larger competitors of this period included, first, McLoughlin Brothers with a broad line of games and storybooks, Milton Bradley who made mainly educational games and Selchow & Righter who made toys and had a big seller with Parcheesi.

His marketing copy for the game read as follows:

"The object is simple: move two pieces into your opponent's goal or eliminate all but one of your opponent's pieces. In a matter of minutes, you'll learn the moves. The Jump. The Capture. And the Power Play. The rest is up to you. Make your moves courageously or cautiously. But always be on guard. One move can quickly change the entire complexion of the game.

Proving that he was a real gamer, this more challenging game was the one that Parker loved best. However, the public did not agree and sales were anemic. Parker concluded that the game was too skillful and scientific.

This would not be the last time that the general public found a game too difficult.

Mansion of Happiness
The W. & S.B. Ives Company, along with the McLoughlins and the Parkers, was yet another set of brothers who made games, but in 1888 the last brother died and the Parkers were able to acquire their titles including this one invented by a Miss Anne W. Abbott in 1830. Daughter of a Salem clergyman, she was also the inventor of Authors.

It was a simple roll and move game as players tried to reach the Mansion at the center, but every copy was hand-painted on an assembly line. It stayed in the catalog for three decades.

The New Round Game of Tiddledy Winks
Proving that toys and games have always gone together, or that maybe what we consider a board game was or should be much less strict than it is, this big hit started in Britain. The Parker Bros. caught early wind of it and applied for the US trademark and for a long time tried to defend it, but it didn't work. Every other publisher already mentioned and several more marketed their own versions.

Office Boy Game
The country was in love with the novels of Horatio Alger in which young men rose from obscurity to conquer all, just by being good. This game attempted to adapt the Mansion of Happiness setup to cash in on the phenomenon by positing players as office boys who travel around a spiral track that uses hexagonal shaped spaces. Some spaces direct a piece to advance or go back. The first player to reach the center space becomes Head of the Firm and wins the game.

Innocence Abroad
The idea of basing a game on a popular book was taken even further with this takeoff on Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, note the crucial spelling change. Few realize it today, but this 1869 work was Twain's bestselling book during his own lifetime. An author who always had a very close eye on the bottom line, he apparently was not about to let the Parkers get away with this one and for the first time the company paid a licensing fee. To make up the revenue, for the first time the Parkers placed ads in Boston and New York newspapers which helped make the firm a household name.

The game itself is another roll and move race across the water and to the land beyond with many rewards and mishaps along the way.

Not to be outdone by the way, Twain himself also decided to try his hand at game design and publishing. In 1891 he created Mark Twain's Memory Builder and came back in 1893 with Significa & Trivia. Both were trivia games. He never seems to have made a game connected to one of his novels. Perhaps he felt that would sully them.

The United States Game
Also known as Across the Continent, this was a roll and move game for perhaps a different market than Mansion of Happiness targeted to lady players. The playing surface was actually printed on the bottom of the box and the box was over three feet long.

So market segments were beginning to be identified.

This game may well have been the inspiration for the later Boxcars (Rail Baron).

The Robin Hood Game
Before the worldwide dominance of film, Robin Hood was another popular literary property and, unlike the above Innocents Abroad, one long since out of copyright. The game itself was yet another roll-and-move affair.

Wonderland cards
not the earliest to do so, this card game attempted to cash in on the popularity of the famous book by Lewis Carroll.

The game is Old Maid in reverse; to win players attempt to hold on to the unique Alice card.

For more information on other Alice games, visit the site of the provider of these pictures: Rob Stone.

The novelty or action game was not a one time fluke either. Another game that came out of London consisted of a string and a balloon. The string formed a demarcation line between the players who hit the balloon back and forth to one another using only the backs of their hands and trying not to be the one who let it fall.

This early party game was quite a flavor of the month for a while and earned the firm a lot of profits. It wouldn't be the last time a game firm sold something for big money that it might not be quite so proud of.

War in Cuba; The Siege of Havana; The Battle of Manila; and The Philippine War
The firm kept trying to figure out the public consciousness and market games to these themes. But these four games that tracked the major developments of the Spanish-American War only did some business for a short time. But they did tend to give the company a red white and blue image.

Actually these were target shooting games using die cut soldiers which were shot down by handheld cannons firing spring-loaded wooden bullets, so this continues the action game trend.

Ping Pong
It was continued even further with this, yet another London import. The fascinating thing about the game back then was that celluloid (a plastic resin formed by mixing of cellulose nitrate and camphor) had been used to make a hollow ball for the first time. The balls were quite flammable it was quite popular in those days to strike a match, hold it under the ball and watch it disappear in a flash. Who knows how many sets were sold for just this reason as with the significant profits earned the company was able to buy out its not-so-silent partners and greatly expand their operation. They also opened up an office in New York's famous Flatiron building.

The words "ping" and "pong" described what people thought they heard while the game was being played.

A Sherlock Holmes Card Game
By now Parker Bros. had become the second best known game company in America after only McLoughlin Bros. It was decided to open a London office and their first product was based on the popular detective. Only minor success was detected, but the lower cost margins of a card game got the company thinking in that direction again.

It may be that Parker got into trouble with A. Conan Doyle and/or his publishers since by 1906 we see appearing the same game, but now bearing the title The Great Detective Game.

Contents are cards in amounts as follows: 7 Burglars, 6 Helps, 5 Runs, 7 Robbers, 6 Stops, 4 Sherlock Holmes, 7 Thieves, 6 Clues, 7 Police. Play is as follows: All of the cards are dealt so that each player has a face down stack. Each player reveals his top card and then. looks to see if any other player has a match to his. If so, he calls the card's name and takes his opponent's card, adding it to the face up file before him. If a player's card matches more than one top card, he takes all the piles matched. All piles not matched remain on the table. When a "Sherlock Holmes" card turns up he calls "Sherlock Holmes" and quickly sweeps all of the piles and they become his. When any one player runs out of cards, the game is over and points are counted The goal is to reach 50 points. As a variation: "Scotland Yard" can be called out during the game and all players must take their top 3 cards and pass them to the left.

Change of box cover and voila, a new game!


This famous card game was invented by Harry E. Gavitt and published in 1903 by Gavitt Publishing and Printing. In that game players deal and trade cards to corner the railway stock market.

From here things get murky. The game was adapted by the psychic Edgar Cayce to change the topic to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He approached the Parkers and sold them the complete rights and then disappeared. It is not clear to me whether Cayce had any right to do what he did or whether the Parkers were fair to Gavitt.

George Parker claimed to have modified the game slightly by adding the Bull and Bear cards and it was a huge seller as 750,000 copies, at fifty cents each, were shipped in just fourteen months. In fact the company was unable to keep up with demand and to help used three other card makers including the US Playing Card Company (who now got into games beyond just the traditional cards).

With a million copies of Pit sold, the company was naturally sold on the idea of card games. It hoped its next hit would be this simple but challenging game of getting rid of ones cards by placing them on piles in numerical sequence. The game was invented by A.J. Patterson and licensed from the Flinch Card Company. It ended up outselling Pit for 1905.

Not every card game worked out well. This one had five suits and players tried to get rid of their cards à la Crazy Eights. The Block cards changed the suit and others added to one's score. Strangely it didn't work, though these are the same elements that made Uno very popular much later.

Still on the card game trail, this was targeted for those whose Puritan ethic prevented them from playing standard playing cards containing kings, queens and jacks because these cards had evolved from Tarot cards which were considered the work of the devil. So George and his wife Grace replaced the four top cards with number cards, added a 14 card and changed the suits into the colors red, yellow, green and black. The rules were adapted from ten different traditional card games and the title is said to come from a type of crow.

Sales were slow at first but built over the years. The company was now reaching a rough parity with McLoughlin Bros.

In the next few years the Parkers spent a great deal of their time on wooden puzzles so let's skip ahead to 1914.

Pollyanna and Broadway
Due to advances in book production around this time, people began to read more and
Pollyanna by Eleanor Hogman Porter was one of the more popular titles, especially for young women so the company decided to license the right to produce a game. Basically it was Parcheesi with some option to take another route which was longer, but safe. This met with success and the game stayed in the catalog for four decades.

Having found the young girls market, they also brought out Broadway which was basically the same game, but aimed at young boys.

There were more war-related games as the country entered World War I, but as they do not seem to have been all that remarkable, let's skip ahead to the 1920's.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Once again there was an attempt to cash in on popular book. By this time it was not only a book, but also a very successful Broadway play and a series of films, both produced by L. Frank Baum himself, though not the famous Judy Garland movie which was not to arrive until 1939. The history of the Oz phenomenon is wonderfully documented in The Annotated Wizard of Oz: A Centennial Edition. As for the game, it does not seem to have been particularly wonderful, apart from its illustrations.


This game seems to have first reached American shores in 1893, appearing at the Chicago Exposition. Joseph Babcock, an American engineer working for Standard Oil in Soochow, China, learned to love it there and tried to sell copies to the United States, but without success. To improve its chances he added numerals to the tiles and introduced it to other expatriates in Shanghai in 1920 where it was a big success. To get a trademark he changed the name from Mah Jong to Mah-Jongg and convinced an Hammond, a lumber importer to sell copies in San Francisco.

Looking for larger sales, he hired an agent who approached the Parkers, who brought out a few copies, but experienced disappointing sales in New York department stores. They were also doubtful because of too much knowledge. There were Mah Jong sets in the local museum which the Parkers assumed were centuries old. They reasoned that if the game had a wide appeal it would have been played out by now. However, they were fooled as the game's rich appearance made it seem far older than it really was. In fact it had been invented only in the mid-nineteenth century. So the Parkers averred they had no further interest and instead turned to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Meanwhile sales in San Francisco shot up and there was a steady buzz about the game throughout California. Many other firms started importing sets and publishing their own rule books, leading to a very confusing proliferation of different rule sets, which continues to this day by the way.

Finally the Parkers got interested, licensed Babcock's trademark and importing a wide range of sets sold at prices from $2.50 to $25.00. But once again, the trademark proved meaningless as many companies participated in the craze. Still, the Parkers could have done much better had they only gotten in a big way at the beginning.

The game also spawned a number of Chinese accessories such as robes, screens, rugs, lamps and food, all of which were to be available while the game was played. But the game itself grew so popular that it was sixth among Chinese exports in 1923-4. But by 1929 it had faded from public view and only dedicated aficianadoes continued to partake.

Tell It to the Judge

As America moved into more modern technologies such as radio and phonographs, the emphasis shifted away from games on books to games endorsed by a celebrity.

This game about highway safety was endorsed by the comedic singer Eddie Cantor whose picture appeared with the game. The idea was to reach a nightclub spending the least amount of money on tickets and so on.

The Game of Lincoln Highway

This game was meant to latch on to the growing importance of the American automobile as well as the highway expansion across the continent. The map in this racing game was said to be accurate enough to be used for navigation. It was a modest seller, but nothing compared to Touring (see below).

Lindy's Hop-Off Game; Lindy; and We
Another type of celebrity was provided by the new age of heroes including the Jack Dempseys, Babe Ruths and Charles Lindberghs. All three of the above games were based on the latter's Atlantic crossing.

Lindy was basically the same game as Touring transposed to a new setting. Touring had been invented on behalf of the Wallie Dorr Company, but I have no information on what may have inspired its inventor who was possibly Wallie Dorr. Nevertheless, it was good enough to get US patent no. 836532. Probably the patent had expired. In this period Parker bought the rights from the Wallie Dorr Company and in the meantime there was a lawsuit between the Parkers and Nucraft who called theirs The New Lindy Flying Game. It's not clear what the order of events was here, but one can well imagine that both the Lindy games were out and the Parkers wanting to use legal means to stamp out the competing product. At any rate the much larger Parker Bros. won and the latter game is much harder to find today, and probably more valuable to collectors.

When the Lindbergh craze died down, the company decided to bring back the original as well.

It's outside this scope of this study, but in 1954, when Parker had acquired 40% of the French games company Miro (and also a large part of the British company Waddingtons), French inventor Edmond Dujardin created a modified version of the game by adding more hazards and remedies as well as the driving ace (coupe fourré) cards. Miro presented the game to Parker who launched it in 1963 and discontinued this one.

This was the earlier Chivalry, brought back for another go with a few changes. Celebrities Laurel & Hardy were hired for publicity photos that showed them playing the game, which got its rules included in the book Games For Two (1930) by Mrs. Prescott Warren. It was really a critical choice rather than a popular one though.

As the Great Depression began, the fascination for cheap puzzles returned, but now this business started to wane for the Parkers as even cheaper cardboard replaced plywood in the public's taste.

This was another game that the Parker's owed to London and for which they purchased the US rights. It was really just a Parcheesi variant where cards replaced the dice and there were a few special paths.

This was the first game to bear the firm's logo of: the founder's signature. It replaced the sailing ship image which was accompanied by the words "Made in Salem, Mass., USA."

But by now the company was in deep trouble as the depths of the Depression had set in and they had no stable seller.

It was at this time that the famous Monopoly entered their lives and saved the company. It was also around this time that George S. Parker, born in 1866 or 1867, retired from day to day operations at the company.

The story of this game has been told and re-told many times so it is only worth recounting a few less well known details here. One was that actually Parker had met Elizabeth J. Magie, inventor of the original Landlord's Game much earlier, back in the early 1920's, which he only remembered when he went to patent the game and found it already patented. So in fact he again had had first chance at a best seller and not recognized its appeal. And ironically the patent which now stood in his way had been urged by him on Magie (as a means of protecting her idea) who probably wouldn't have thought of it on her own.

The other interesting fact is that many thousands of these games were given away free to American servicemen overseas during World War II. No doubt this served as great advertising and had a lot to do with creating the popularity that the game enjoys to this very day.

There's a whole lot more in the Philip E. Orbanes book than has been discussed here. I heartily recommend that you find yourself a copy to enjoy.

Created: October 10, 2005