February 8, 2007

Parker Brothers

And the man behind the brand is...
George Parker

What would a life devoted to playing games be like? Would a life of fun and games be, well, all fun and games? Such was the life of George S. Parker.

Parker was born in 1867 in Salem, Massachusetts, the third youngest son of a well-to-do merchant. George was a tall, gangly youth who dreamed of world travel as a foreign correspondent. George and his friends were great games enthusiasts who formed an informal club playing old favorites like chess, checkers and dominoes.

The boys also played America’s first board game, THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS, created by a minister’s daughter. No one in the club liked “Mansion” much. As with all board games of the time it was preachy and piously moral. America’s Puritan heritage died hard; 250 years after the Pilgrims playing cards and dice were forbidden as the tools of the devil. George believed that the purpose of a game was to provide fun, not to teach moral principles.

In 1883, 16-year old George Parker invented the GAME OF BANKING. The object of the game, consisting of 160 cards and a “bank,” was to see who could profit the most from speculation and borrowed most. At the end of the game the richest player was declared the winner.

The club enjoyed the game immensely and Arthur Wellington, a member of the group, suggested to parker that other people might like it too. He persuaded George to try and sell it to a company that produced games. Parker took BANKING to two Boston book publishers. Both turned it down, but one suggested that George try and publish the game himself since he thought so much of it.

Parker borrowed $50 to have 500 sets of cards printed and packaged in boxes. With $10 leftover he took a leave of absence from school and embarked on a sales trip through southern New England. By Christmas he had sold all but two dozen copies of BANKING and cleared almost $100 in profits.

Despite his success George Parker was skeptical about becoming a games inventor and publisher on a permanent basis but his brother urged him to pursue his love of games. He founded the George S. Parker Company, spending the majority of his time developing new games and play-testing them.

To insure that all the games he published remained fun to play time after time, he played every game with employees, friends and anyone else he could persuade to sit down with him. He noted the points over which they seemed confused and the time when the pace of the game seemed too slow. Even though George was a busy head of a fast-growing business, he personally wrote the rules of every new game.

By 1888 Parker’s catalog described 29 games, most of which he invented himself. With the games business booming George persuaded his older brother Charles, an shrewd and practical oilman, to join the company full-time, and they renamed it Parker Brothers. Edward Parker, the oldest brother came on board in 1898.

Ironically, profits from the moralistic games, the rights to which he bought, fueled money for Parker’s fun games. But by the 1890s, known as the Gay Nineties, the public was eager for fun. Parker Brothers experienced a great period of growth with games reflecting the times.

Over the years Parker Brothers introduced games base on the Spanish-American War (THE SIEGE OF HAVANA and BATTLE OF MANILA), the Alaskan Gold Rush (KLONDIKE), the automobile (THE MOTOR CARRIAGE GAME) and individuals like Lindbergh, Byrd and AMERICA’S G-MEN.

Since bridge was banned by millions of conservative American families Parker saw the need for a substitute card game that would not be associated with gambling. PIT and FLINCH became best-selling card games in the early 1900s and in 1906 Parker Brothers brought out ROOK. It was not an immediate success but by 1913 was the largest selling game in the country. Some 55 million decks have been sold.

Always searching for a pleasurable pastime, Parker Brothers decided to apply a puzzle technique to pictures. The first jigsaw puzzle used reproductions of paintings by the masters laminated onto wood. Demand for puzzles was so overwhelming production of games had to be curtailed in the Salem plant until a special building could be outfitted.

The Depression ravaged many businesses, especially a games company. In 1934, at the height of hard times, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania arrived at Salem with a new game. After an initial play-test by company executives the game was unanimously turned town. Not only that, Parker identified 52 fundamental playing errors, not the least of which was that a game of MONOPOLY couldn’t be completed in 45 minutes - Parker’s idea of a family’s attention span.

Darrow went home and started selling his game on his own. Reports of brisk sales led Parker Brothers to reconsider and they purchased the rights in 1935. MONOPOLY was the biggest thing that had ever hit Parker Brothers. More than 20,000 sets a week were leaving the plant. At Christmastime so many orders poured in that they were stuffed in huge laundry baskets and stacked in hallways.

Still, George Parker considered MONOPOLY a fad. On December 19, 1936 he personally issued orders to cease production of the game in anticipation of a sales slump before inventories grew too large. But it was only the beginning of MONOPOLY’s popularity, not the end. The greatest board game of all is was to eventually be printed in 23 languages.

In 1953 Parker died at the age of 86. His company was poised to introduce three of its most successful board games: CLUE, RISK and CAREERS. Chances are he still couldn’t believe that he had been able to spend his whole life playing games.

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