Ron, a friend of mine, studied architecture in school but never pursued it as a career. He turned his talents towards motion picture art direction and ended up working in the film business, all the while maintaining a lifelong interest in architecture. He also happens to be a devoted Scrabble player. What does architecture and Scrabble have to do with each other? Funny you should ask.
Scrabble was invented by an architect, a New York City architect no less, by the name of Alfred Mosher Butts. Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on April 13, 1899. In 1933 he came up with a game to play with his friends during The Great Depression. He called the game Lexico, an early version of Scrabble. For five years he tweaked it here and there and finally created what we now know as Scrabble, one of the most popular board games in the world.
Butts determined how many tiles there should be and how many points each letter should be worth by performing a frequency analysis of letters from various sources, including The New York Times. He called the game “Criss-Crosswords,” added the 15×15 game board and the crossword-style game play. He produced a few sets himself, but was not very successful in selling the game to any major game manufacturers at that time.
In 1948, Butts’ partner, James Brunot, bought the rights to manufacture the game in exchange for granting Butts a royalty on every unit sold. Though he left most of the game (including the distribution of letters) unchanged, Brunot slightly rearranged the “premium” squares of the board and simplified the rules; he also changed the name of the game to “Scrabble,” a real word which means “to scratch or grope around quickly.”
According to legend, sales of the game didn’t really take off until 1952 when Jack Straus, president of Macy’s, played the game on vacation and loved it. When he returned home from vacation he was surprised to find that his store did not carry the game. He placed a large order and within a year, “everyone had to have one.”
More than 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide since it was trademarked in 1948, with almost two million sold every year in North America alone. The game is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages. About one-third of American and half of British homes have a Scrabble set and there are around 4,000 Scrabble clubs around the globe. Alfred Butts’ birthday, April 13, is officially National Scrabble Day with tournaments and celebrations held all over the world.
I’ve been an avid Scrabble player most of my life I guess. My wife and her mother loved playing it too and very often the three of us would spend an evening at the board, so to speak. The two of them played it a little differently from me, they liked to “help” each other with the letters each had, and it drove me a little nuts. Actually more than a little.
My mother-in-law was excellent at the game, challenging any word she wasn’t sure was genuine. “I don’t know if that’s a word,” she would innocently say, forcing me to look it up. Or if I laid down a sound effect word such as “pow” or “wham,” even if it was in the dictionary, she would hate it saying, “That’s a comic strip word.” In the end she’d let me use it, but begrudgingly. The three of us were pretty evenly matched and I have wonderful memories of those times.
For many years a group of us would gather for weekly game nights that included all sorts of board games such as Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Yahtzee, Acquire, and various card games. No matter what else we played on any given game night, we’d always wind up the evening with a game of Scrabble. Although our group has shrunk to just Ron and me these days, we still try to get together for a weekly game or two of Scrabble.
Celebrate Alfred Mosher Butts’ birthday this April by having your own Scrabble game night. And introduce it to the kids. It’s a fun way for them to learn how to spell and a refreshing break from their electronic gizmos.
Greg Crosby is a writer and cartoonist and former executive at the Walt Disney Company.