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Scrabble: How It Began

The Scrabble Brand Crossword Game began as the idea of Alfred Mosher Butts (1899-1993), an architect who found himself unemployed during the Great Depression. Butts was not one to feel sorrow for himself when he was laid off. Instead, he decided to make good use of his time and see if he couldn’t create a board game.

Butts was very analytical in his approach to this project. First, he examined the categories of games that were popular. He learned they fell into three categories—number games like dice and bingo; strategy games such as chess and checkers; and word games such as anagrams. He felt the ideal game should involve both chance and skill. If winning the game involved a bit of chance or luck, it would keep things interesting for both the novice and the expert player.

Interactive Crossword?

Scrabble
Game inventor Alfred M. Butts

As he researched, he focused on creating an interactive crossword-type of game. What if players had letters they could play? If individual letters became playing pieces, then his next step was to analyze letter usage within common words. (Remember that Butts was doing all this without the aid of a computer.)

He used the front page of The New York Times as his study guide. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80 percent of the letters used most frequently. This study of letter usage also gave him the data he needed to add point values for the use of each letter.

As Butts experimented, he found a weakness in the game. If players had access to too many “S” letters, then they could score by making a previously-played word plural. To make that aspect of the game more difficult, he created only four squares of the letter “S.”

Scrabble   istock

The First Scrabble-Type Game

The first game Butts created involved squares of cardboard with letters. Their point values were written on each square. As his satisfaction with his creation grew, he began gluing the letters to plywood to make them more durable. He also handcrafted small racks to hold the letters.  

Initially, he saw no need for a board, so the game he designed was more like a card game. All players needed was a flat surface on which to play the game. Butts called the game “Lexico.” Later, he simplified it to “Criss Cross Words” and added a game board.

Scrabble

For the game to reach a broad market, Butts needed to have it picked up by a company that could manufacture and sell it, so he began making the rounds to game manufacturers. His visits to the companies were unsuccessful, however. It seemed the game was destined to be a novelty that he sold to a few hundred people.

Back to Architecture

In 1935, the housing market appeared to be turning around. As a result,Butts was re-hired by his old architectural firm, Holden, McLaughlin & Associates. He returned to designing houses, and for the most part, he set the game aside. He still had a few copies of the game, so if people expressed interest, he sold them copies. A few people still played.

In the late 1940s, a fellow by the name of James Brunot (1902-1984) saw the game and thought it had commercial possibilities. Brunot was a federal employee and was contemplating retirement. But he wanted a small business that would keep him occupied in his new life.

Brunot contacted Butts and offered to buy the rights to the game. Butts was interested but he was smart. He agreed to a sale with the provision that he would retain patent rights on each game sold.

James Brunot loved the game but also saw some places where it could be improved. He moved the “start” point to the center of the board (instead of the upper left corner). He also came up with the board color scheme that still exists today.

Scrabble Became New Name

He also renamed it Scrabble. The word “scrabble,” is from a Dutch word meaning “to grope–reach for something frantically.” (Today the game is so well-known that few would ever think to use the word in common conversation, unless they were talking about the game.)

Brunot and his wife began making and selling the game from their home. In the beginning they relied on friends to come in and stamp letters on wooden tiles. Even by cost-saving in this way, the Brunots actually lost money that first year. Only a few thousand games were sold.

Scrabble

istock

But slowly, sales began to climb. They added employees to make and package the games. Eventually, they bought an abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgingtown, Connecticut (now part of Newtown, Connecticut) to use as a workshop.   

Discovered by Macy’s

Then good fortune struck. Jack Strauss, president of Macy’s at the time, was introduced to the game. During the summer of 1952, friends introduced to the game while he was on vacation. When he returned to work, he inquired as to whether or not Macy’s sold the game. They did not, so Strauss placed a big order.

Within 12 months, Scrabble became the “it” game. Sales rocketed from 4,853 in 1951 to almost 4 million in 1954. There were also sets made in foreign languages, and one was made in Braille.

Brunot added staff but even with 35 employees working two shifts, the maximum games they were able to produce in early 1953 was 6,000 Scrabble sets per week. Demand for the Scrabble game continued to be so high, this was no longer a leisurely business. James Brunot licensed the rights to Scrabble to a game manufacturer, Selchow and Righter. (Ironically, Selchow and Righter had turned down the game when Butts went to them with his version many years earlier.) Brunot’s move was a wise one. Sales of hte game continued to escalate.

Scrabble
The Eisenhowers playing Scrabble

For 30 years, Selchow and Righter manufactured the game under the agreed-upon terms. Finally in 1971, Brunot agreed to an offer from the game company that let him cash out. In 1972, Butts took a similar offer, selling his patent rights on the game as well. Brunot made about $1.5 million (almost 12 million in today’s money) while Butts received $265,000 in royalties (about $2 million).

Scrabble Sold Again

In 1986, the rights to Scrabble were sold to COLECO Industries. COLECO seemed well prepared to handle a big-selling game. They had managed their way through sales for their enormously popular Cabbage Patch dolls. Unfortunately, COLECO wasn’t organized for long-range success. Three years after acquiring Scrabble, the company went bankrupt. Scrabble was then purchased by Hasbro, owner of Milton Bradley, the nation’s leading game company.

Today one of every three American homes has a Scrabble game. Hasbro still sells all forms of the game offered within the United States. However, they do not have international rights, which are owned by Mattel. (Selchow and Righter had sold those rights separately many years previously.)

Scrabble

Local and national competitions to name Scrabble champs are still held to help maintain interest in the game. Hasbro sponsors a national championship each year in a different U.S. city.  The international championship, the World Scrabble Championship, is held every other year and is co-hosted by both Mattel and Hasbro.

In addition, the game now be played online. See Scrabble-Hasbro.

Alfred Butts Did Just Fine

And while Alfred M. Butts may not have maximized his possible earnings from the game, the royalties earned from 1948-1972 when he sold his rights to Selchow and Righter, certainly enhanced his income. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he earned about 3 cents per game sold. Butts is quoted as having told a reporter that one-third of that income went to taxes; another third to charity; and a final third he and his wife used to live a more comfortable life.

In addition to a long and well-respected career as an architect, Butts also had a successful run as an amateur artist. He made drawings of New York scenes, reprinting them on architect’s linen by running them through a blueprint machine. These drawings were produced in limited editions, and six of them were found worthy of being added to the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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