Like Monopoly, Scrabble is a product of the Depression, but the word game had to wait until 1952 to be recognized as the classic it is. One day it was a mildly popular “highbrow” pastime. Then suddenly it turned into a national craze which has yet to die down. And whereas Monopoly creator Charles B. Darrow came up with his game as a way for people to forget their troubles, the inventor of Scrabble deliberately set out to make a game that would save his family from poverty.
The year was 1931. Alfred Mosher Butts, a rather scholarly-looking architect, was out of work. He and his wife, Nina, were having trouble making ends meet.
“There I was, out of a job, needing something to do,” said Butts. “I happened to be a games buff, and I got the notion that I could invent a successful game. Nothing else occupied my time, so I decided to give it a whirl.”
After giving considerable thought to the project, Butts came to the conclusion that there were just three basic varieties of board games: games with numbers, which he considered to include dice and cards; games in which players moved men around the board, like chess and checkers; and word games like anagrams, in which the letters of familiar words are scrambled, or cryptograms, in which the player must decipher messages written in code.
The smallest number of manufactured games seemed to fall into the last category—which was fortunate for Butts, who had long been a devotee of anagrams and cryptograms. He knew that anagrams involve no letter distribution, while cryptograms do; and from these facts came a new kind of game format.
Letter distribution, as Butts thought of it, refers to the frequency with which different letters occur in English words. He saw that a “Z” or a “Q” appears less often than an “E” or a “T.” Deciding to assign point values to letters according to their scarcity of occurrence, Butts arrived at scores by counting up the number of times the letters of the alphabet appeared on the front pages of local newspapers.
Butts first applied his findings in a variation of anagrams in which the letters carried point values. But after playing the new game, he decided more experimentation was in order. “I had to admit that it was not too interesting a game,” Butts sighed.
His next idea was to put the game on a board resembling a crossword puzzle, so that words would have to link up with others already on the board. This topographical feature appealed to Butts as an architect.
“After that, I got still another notion,” he said. “If I added premium squares, the physical play would increase in sophistication. Words and letters placed on these squares would increase in value, and the pattern of laying down words became even more crucial.”
This evolutionary process took Butts until about 1935. By then, he’d resumed work as an architect and was no longer under pressure to sell the game quickly. Throughout its development, Butts had no name for his brainchild; he merely called the game “it.”
The first game sets fashioned by the inventor used blueprints for boards, and he settled on one hundred letter tiles in each set because he sawed them himself and more would have been too arduous.
At first, he used Cribbage boards for scoring (an idea later adapted in today’s Deluxe Scrabble edition). Butts soon replaced the racks with a stock molding from a local lumber yard, which is still used in the standard Scrabble set.
Butts submitted “it” to all the major game makers, but they all refused politely, saying that the game was too “highbrow.” He continued to play his game with his wife and a small circle of friends, many of whom requested and received their own sets.
It wasn’t until 1948, more than a decade after the game’s birth, that any serious attempt was made to manufacture it privately. One of Butts’s close friends, James Brunot, a prominent social worker and one-time executive director of the President’s War Relief Control, had often played the “intellectual word game” and thought it might offer a nice opportunity to earn some money for himself and his wife. Their ambition was to leave city life and operate “a quiet little business in the country.” He suggested to Butts that they might do a moderate business by manufacturing and distributing the game themselves.Butts agreed. The first task the new partners faced was to come up with a catchy title for the still unnamed game. They put their heads together and “brainstormed” a large number of possibilities, one of which was Scrabble. According to their dictionary, “scrabble” was a verb meaning “to scratch, scrape or paw with the hands or feet.” Butts and Brunot thought the word suggested the “digging” for letters that takes place in their game. They sent a list of suggestions to a patent-attorney firm, which wrote back that Scrabble was one of the few names on their list that had not been patented for a game. “It” was christened Scrabble.
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