by Bruce Whitehill
THE STORY OF “SCRABBLE”
by Bruce Whitehill
The Inventor of SCRABBLE.
In 1931, as a result of the Depression, Alfred Butts, born in 1899 in Poughkeepsie, New York, was laid off from his position as an architect. With no work, lots of time, and a family background where games were a major form of amusement, he decided to try inventing a new game which he felt would fill a gap in the marketplace–a game that would, according to his own notes, “combine elements of luck and skill in the formation of words.” Though crossword puzzles had become a major pastime in the United States, there was no word game on the market better than ANAGRAMS.
Early attempts at word games.
In 1932, Butts devised a game called LEXICO, which, like SCRABBLE, involved the random selection of tiles with letters on them, and gave a score for words formed. The game, which had wood racks made from pieces of molding, used 100 tiles (the same as SCRABBLE), and the letter distribution was based on Butts’ study of cryptography and on a letter frequency count of words appearing on the first page of The New York Times.
There was no playing board. Words were not connected crossword fashion, and letters were not marked with different point values. The score for any word played was based on the length of the word, with bonuses possible, depending on the particular letters used.
The Beginning of SCRABBLE.
In 1937 or early 1938, noticing the popularity of crossword puzzles in newspapers, Butts got the idea of adding a playing board to his game of letter tiles, and allowing words to intersect. In trying to devise a better scoring system, he experimented with placing premium values on certain spaces on the board, and to assigning each letter a numerical value. He called his new game CRISS-CROSS and applied for a patent. The application was rejected, presumably, Butts believed, because there was no novelty in giving numerical values to letters.
Butts continued to experiment. He changed the name of his game to CRISS-CROSS WORDS, changed the letter distribution and the values of some letters, and tried using different starting squares and different locations for the premium squares. Between 1938 and 1941 or 1942 he gave away or sold 100 sets of the game to friends and family, and approximately another 25 sets were made and distributed by a Connecticut bookstore owner.
CRISS-CROSS WORDS Becomes SCRABBLE.
In 1947, Butts was approached by James Brunot, a man with venture capital who had come across CRISS-CROSS WORDS and was looking for a business to start. During the course of negotiations Brunot received legal advice indicating that CRISS-CROSS WORDS was not patentable and could not be protected by copyright because of the way in which the game had been previously marketed, but that “protection could be secured if substantial changes were made to the design of the game…and if it were renamed.”
Butts, in exchange for royalties, agreed to allow Brunot to manufacture and market CRISS-CROSS WORDS in a suitably amended form. Brunot altered the design of the board, including making the center starting square a double-word premium space. He revised the rules, adding the fifty-point bonus for any word which used all seven of a player’s tiles. And he changed the name to SCRABBLE.
Brunot Builds, then Sells to Selchow.
James Brunot started a company called the Production and Marketing Company, obtained a copyright for SCRABBLE, and took over the production of the crossword game from the living room of his home in Newtown, Connecticut. From this point on, Butts no longer had any direct involvement in the game but continued to have a financial interest and was frequently consulted by Brunot. In his last interview in 1991 (two years before he died), at his place of residence in New York State, Alfred Butts mentioned the good friendship and long association that developed out of his business affiliation with Brunot.
According to different reports, Brunot made twelve to sixteen SCRABBLE sets a day; by the time he had completed around 2,400 sets in 1949, he was $450 in the red. But by 1950, word-of-mouth advertising had boosted the popularity of SCRABBLE so tremendously that Brunot’s company could no longer keep up with the demand; by the end of 1952, the company was selling over 400 sets a day. The sudden interest in SCRABBLE was uncanny, and one could only speculate what would make sales take off so unexpectedly. One theory is that the game was played at fashionable resorts around the country, and when vacationers returned home they looked to their local stores to carry the game; another theory attributes some of the game’s success to the owner of Macy’s department store who personally enjoyed the game and made certain that it was well-stocked in his store.
Unable to keep up with the demand, Brunot contracted with the 87-year-old Selchow & Righter Company to have the gameboards manufactured. Then, in 1953, S&R licensed SCRABBLE and took over the manufacturing and marketing of the entire game; the Production and Marketing Co, which had moved to larger quarters, continued to produce sets to supplement those manufactured by S&R. In 1971 S&R bought the rights to SCRABBLE. The SCRABBLE® BRAND CROSSWORD GAME is now owned by Hasbro-Bradley, the company that acquired Coleco after Coleco’s bankruptcy following their purchase of Selchow & Righter.
A Few Words About SCRABBLE.
SCRABBLE has become the most popular word game in the United States, and it has been sold around the world in many languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, and Russian; there has even been a version in Braille. The government of Thailand used to promote SCRABBLE because it encouraged the use of English which is important for international business. There have been SCRABBLE handbooks and dictionaries, a SCRABBLE newspaper, and numerous packaging styles of SCRABBLE, including deluxe, magnetic, and travels sets, sets with revolving boards, and a seldom-seen soft vinyl and cloth board that covers a bridge table. The game has also led to various spin-offs such as a picture version, SCRABBLE FOR JUNIORS, a 3-D version, RSVP, and a speed game with a rotating platform replacing the board, called RPM; a number of crossword card games and letter-cube games have also been produced by different companies since CRISS-CROSS WORDS first appeared.
Cadaco game company was the only company that ever received an official license to make SCRABBLE, which it did (in cardboard) in 1953 and marketed under the name SKIP-A-CROSS.
In 1939, Pressman Toy Company released a game called WORDY, which was almost identical to SCRABBLE in game play, except that the tiles were colored rather than numbered to indicate the value of the letters.
Still, there was only one SCRABBLE, more than 100 million sets have been sold, and it’s still one of the best word games in any language.
Scrabble in Brief….And a few more illustrations
SCRABBLE, the A+ of all word games was first copyrighted in 1948 but its origins began in 1931. Inventor Alfred Butts, out of work because of the Depression, explained in his own notes that he tried inventing a new game which he felt would “combine elements of luck and skill in the formation of words.” He devised a game called LEXICO (later called CRISS-CROSS, and then CRISS-CROSS words), similar to ANAGRAMS, and six years later added a gameboard to his game.
Around the same time, 1939 (according to the copyright date on his game), George Coffin invented a crossword-style game called “Autowords,” but he didn’t publish it until 1955.
A decade later, Butts went into partnership with James Bruno, the man responsible for naming the game “SCRABBLE” and taking it into production. Though the company made less than 20 sets a day in 1948 (under its own imprint, the Production & Marketing Co.), by the end of 1952 it was selling over 400 sets daily. The inexplicable success of SCRABBLE has been attributed to the owner of Macy’s department store keeping the game well-stocked since he enjoyed it so much, and to fashionable resorts at which the game was played, prompting vacationers to buy personal copies when they returned home.
Selchow & Righter produced the original gameboards for the Production & Marketing Co. After the 104-year-old S&R bought the game outright in 1971, the company’s focused changed completely to word games. Coleco bought out Selchow & Righter, then went into Chapter 11, and was bought by Hasbro-Bradley, current owners of The SCRABBLE® BRAND CROSSWORD GAME.
J. Pressman Company’s 1939 game WORDY is nearly identical to SCRABBLE, except the point value of letters is shown by different color tiles. Cadaco is the only company to have officially obtained a license for SCRABBLE, and in 1953 they produced SKIP-A-CROSS, a low-end colorful cardboard SCRABBLE twin.
The letter distribution in SCRABBLE was based on Butts’ study of cryptography and on a letter frequency count of words appearing on the first page of The New York Times . Alfred Butts died in 1993, but his legacy lives on in many languages around the world.
Hasbro owns the American and Canadian rights to Scrabble; Mattel owns the rights for everywhere else.
In 2002, Stefan Fatsis wrote the book Word Freak – Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.The book is offered by the publisher, Penguin, at the Penguin website. Penguin describes the book this way: “In Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis introduces readers to those few, exploring the underground world of colorful characters for which the Scrabble game is life-playing competitively in tournaments across the country. It is also the story of how the Scrabble game was invented by an unemployed architect during the Great Depression and how it has grown into the hugely successful, challenging, and beloved game it is today. Along the way, Fatsis chronicles his own obsession with the game and his development as a player from novice to expert. More than a book about hardcore Scrabble players, Word Freak is also an examination of notions of brilliance, memory, language, competition, and the mind that celebrates the uncanny creative powers in us all.”