A game played avidly by amateurs and pros alike. In jails and by the British Royal Family, and has fans even at The White House. No other game brings wordsmiths together like Scrabble. And to think it may not have seen the light of living rooms:
Though words are its currency, it’s really a game about anything but. It’s a spatial game, a game of patterns and of memory. No wonder many top players have a mathematical rather than a linguistic background. You certainly don’t need to know what an obscure two-letter filler like ‘ee’ or ‘da’ means in order to play it, only that it appears on the endorsed word lists.
The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. Inspired by Charles Darrow’s success as the nominal inventor of Monopoly, Butts sat in his apartment in Queens, New York City, pondering the board games market. There were three types of game, he determined: move games like chess, number games such as bingo, and word games, of which he could think of just one example, Anagrams.
Butts was fond of chess, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles, and the influence of all three can be seen in Scrabble. His first pass at designing the game set players the somewhat daunting task of forming nine- and 10-letter words. It was also missing a crucial component: a board. As the game evolved, Butts added blank tiles and premium-score squares, and moved the game’s start from the edge of the board to the centre.
His guinea pig was his wife Nina who, in a twist that would seem scandalous today, had been his schoolteacher growing up. Was it her fault that Butts always claimed to be a terrible speller? Invariably, Mrs Butts beat him at his own game, reportedly once playing the word ‘quixotic’ across two triple-word scores, notching up close to 300 points in a single turn.
Soon, they were gathering friends and neighbours to play in the hall of the local Methodist church but the game remained a stubbornly local hit. By mid-1934, he’d sold just 84 handmade sets at a loss of $20. Every major games manufacturer turned it down, and his application for a patent met the same fate. Eventually, the economy perked up and Butts was able to resume his old job at the architectural firm.
The story may have ended there were it not for one James Brunot, an aspiring entrepreneur who owned an early set of Criss-Cross Words, as the game was known at the time. When he retired from his day job in 1948, he approached Butts offering to make and sell the game. Brunot also came up with the name Scrabble, lodging a successful copyright application that same year. The game’s tipping point was still four years away, and until then Brunot, like Butts before him, lost money producing a few dozen sets each week. But it was on its way, and in 1952, the president of Macy’s department store happened to see a Scrabble game in progress while holidaying in Florida. The store began stocking it and was soon shifting 6,000 sets weekly.
Read the full history here.