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Monday, December 4, 2023

December 4, 2023: Board Game Studying: Scrabble

[On December 1, 1948, a Connecticut inventor named James Brunot copyrighted a new board game called Scrabble. Like many great games Scrabble has endured and grown ever since, so for the 75th anniversary of that pivotal moment I’ll AmericanStudy it and a handful of other board games. I’d love your thoughts on these, others, and board games over for a competitive yet collaborative crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On three examples of the moments and stages through which a game becomes an icon.

In 1931, an out-of-work New York architect (this was the Great Depression, after all) and gaming enthusiast named Alfred Mosher Butts wrote an article entitled “A Study of Games.” Butts was a particular fan of word games and puzzles like crosswords, and after analyzing countless examples of the genre like those found in the New York Times he decided to invent a game of his own that could replicate the experience of completing such puzzles but involve multiple competing players at once. At first he called the game Lexico, and it required the players to write down the letters and words themselves; but having had no luck marketing his proposed game to companies like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, in 1938 Butts added a board component, renamed the game Criss-Cross Words, and began manufacturing copies himself.

Butts wasn’t able to make too many of those self-produced copies, but one of them found its way into the hands of a Newtown, Connecticut social worker, Federal government employee, and would-be game designer named James Brunot. Brunot and his family loved Criss-Cross Words and believed it had potential; in 1948 he bought the rights from Butts (offering to pay him a royalty on every copy sold), changed a few of the rules and the name to Scrabble, and received the copyright 75 years ago this week. At first Brunot and his wife Helen likewise manufactured their own copies of the game, producing around 18 copies a day out of their Newtown home (which they renamed the Production and Marketing Company). But for whatever reason—and I do think the name change had something to do with it; Scrabble is a great name—demand was much higher, and the Brunots sold 2400 sets in 1949 alone, moving production to an abandoned schoolhouse as it expanded.

The third of these pivotal stages is a bit more ambiguous and might even be apocryphal—but what is the story of an American icon without some legendary details? As the story goes, the influential president of Macy’s department store, Jack Straus, played Scrabble while on a family vacation in 1952 and fell in love; when he returned to work he was frustrated to see that his stores did not carry the game, and demanded that they do so. Almost immediately the demand outstripped what the Brunots were able to produce, and they licensed manufacturing rights to the longstanding game company Selchow and Righter. No matter how much the Brunots were able to do, it’s unlikely that a home-manufactured game could ever have achieved the widespread popularity that Scrabble has; so whether the Straus story is entirely accurate or not, there’s no doubt that the 1952 transition to both department store sales and an existing manufacturer was a key moment in Scrabble’s evolution from quirky invention to one of the most successful board games in history.

Next board game tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other games you’d highlight for the weekend post?

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