Milton Bradley’s ‘The Game of Life’ has sold over 100 billion copies worldwide, based on numbers I just made up. But the origins of the game are unlike any other and involve lithography, an 11 year old girl and a night of avoided problems.
Milton Bradley is a board gaming company that, at this point, everyone knows. They have been around for ages and have tons of games, each and every one of them fun for the whole family!
Oh…uh, geez. wow… okay, bad example.
What a lot of people may not realize, is that Milton Bradley was a real person. He created the company and designed at least a few of the games himself.
Born on November 8, 1836 and lived until May 30, 1911, the story of Milton Bradley is one that we can all closely relate to. His life is so cliche it might as well be a daytime TV sitcom by now. I mean, we’ve all heard the trope where a man owns a small business that is run into the ground by an 11 year old girl’s letter to the president urging him to grow a beard. Then the man, in a fit of desperation and depression, makes an incredibly cynical and morbid board game but sells surprisingly well and saves the man from the brink of ruin.
It’s such an overused trope.
Surprisingly still no entry on that though
Let’s step back and take a look at the early works of the late Milton Bradley.
The Fast Paced World of Lithography
Before he got into the board gaming scene, Milton Bradley had a lithography business. Lithography is a method of printing that uses a set print to make copies of an original image. He set up his shop in 1860 and was initially very successful.
Bradley had decided to make prints of a then mostly unknown Republican Presidential candidate.
Abraham Lincoln was gaining popularity and Bradley thought to capitalize on that. This business was doing well and the prints were selling.
Bradley thought himself king of the color lithography business in all of Springfield, Massachusetts. Things were going great until a customer came back to Bradley demanding a refund.
The customer claimed the lithographical likeness wasn’t accurate.
An Eleven Year Old Girl Influences History
Grace Bedell was, at the time, an 11 year old girl living in New York. She had seen pictures of Abraham Lincoln and in a combination of child-like wonderment and condescending hubris told Abe his face was too thin and he would get more votes if he grew a beard.
The letter is lengthy, but the key takeaway is this line here:
I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President.
The letter got to Ol’ Abe and he responded on October 19th saying:
As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?
Seems those concerned were unwarranted because by the next month he had the beginnings of an iconic beard.
Taken Nov 25, 1860
What an adorable story! The tale of an ambitious little girl just trying to help a candidate she wanted to win the presidency. Who could be mad at such a heartwarming tale?
My Buddy Milton Could
Word had gotten back to Milton Bradley that his lithographical prints were useless. Lincoln had grown a beard and the clean shaven Lincoln was soooo last month!
His business started tanking. Rather than work out a plan for how to deal with his problems and fix his business, Bradley decided to go play games with a friend of his, George Tapley.
That’s the spirit, Milton!
Tapley showed Bradley some old English game and Bradley decided he could improve the game by adding some good old fashioned American depression and passive aggressive morality!
The Checkered Game of Life plays on a checker board and requires the players to acquire 100 points by landing on ‘good’ spaces while avoiding the bad ones.
Landing on Honor, Happiness and Success grant 5 points each.
While landing on Poverty, Disgrace, Prison or Suicide gets you nothing. The game had a very strong moral message: Perseverance leads to Success, Intemperance leads to Poverty, Honesty leads to Happiness and Gambling leads to Ruin. Notably, the game used a spinning top to roll to move, because dice were seen as too closely related to gambling.
But the game sold very well in its first year, selling 45,000 copies. Which, if I understand inflation, would be 1,302,915 copies in today’s market. Milton Bradley went on to create more games and home amusements and became the board game magnate we all know and deal with today.
If only today’s ads were as straightforward as “Standard and Popular”
Thus ends the tale of how an 11 year old girl, Abraham Lincoln’s beard and a problem-avoiding game night created one of the most iconic board games of all time!
Thanks for reading!