Before the daily Wordles and crosswords that could be played from the phone in your pocket, another word game caused that perfect marriage of love and angst. Scrabble, beloved for generations, has spawned numerous iterations, competitions, and online versions. An edition of Scrabble is likely to be in your home or in your neighbor’s home, as one in three Americans own it. But where did the game begin and why do legions of fans still turn to this classic game?
Architect Alfred Mosher Butts is responsible for the earliest iteration of Scrabble. Born in 1899, Butts attended the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and in 1924, moved to New York to work for a firm. It wasn’t long before he was laid off, thanks to the Depression, and in order to make money and find purpose, he tried out several avenues, including writing and painting. Several of his paintings are available to view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To pass time, Butts wrote a paper in 1931 identifying the three most common types of games: board games, number games (usually with cards or dice), and letter games. The most popular games at the time were board and number games, though the game Anagrams was a popular example of a letter game. During this time, he happened to be reading a short story by Edgar Allan Poe called “The Gold Bug,” and in it, he noticed a line that showed the English letter distribution — in other words, a line that had the most common letters in the most common distribution. He realized then that a game like Anagrams would be much more fun if letters more common in the English language were also more common in the game.
After studying how letters are commonly distributed via newspapers, magazines, and other print media at the time, Butts developed his first game. “He increased the number of words and broke down letter frequency by percentage: He created a list of one thousand words of four letters or longer and recorded the percentage by word length. He compared letter frequency of varying word lengths on a page of the dictionary versus a page of The Saturday Evening Post, sampling a total of 12,082 letters and 2,412 words. He combined samples from different sources; one study of 18,165 letters included 6,083 letters from the Times,” explains Stefan Fatsis, author of the book Word Freak, who offers a fascinating window into Butt’s mind.
Called Lexiko, from the Greek lexicos, meaning “of or for words,” the game design, which had yet to be put to an actual board, was sold by Butts independently, as the major manufacturers at the time rejected it. Lexiko lived between 1934 and 1938, when Butts realized he needed to come up with something that would be more profitable and potentially sell to a company like Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley. He decided to reimagine Lexiko as a board game and in 1938, renamed his creation Criss Cross Words.
From Criss Cross Words to Scrabble
Butts’s architecture background helped him develop the first board game rendition of Criss Cross Words. The hand-drawn board was made using his architectural equipment, then reproduced through blueprints and glued on to checkerboards. The tiles were hand drawn as well, glued to balsa squares the same size as the squares on the 15×15 board.
Criss Cross Words debuted in 1938, and for the next decade, Butts worked once again to sell his game to a manufacturer. He had no success but again continued to sell the game himself.
In 1948, Butts decided to team up with entrepreneur James Brunout. Brunout was looking for a way to pass time in retirement, and as one of the owners of the original Criss Cross Words, decided to connect with Butts about buying the rights to it. Together, Butts and Brunout reconfigured the game a bit, incorporating pink, blue, indigo, and red bonus squares, rearranging them on the board, and adding 50 point bonus for using all seven tiles. They also decided to change the name to Scrabble, which means “to grope frantically.” The name and game were trademarked that year.
Brunout, his wife, and several friends began manufacturing copies of the game in an abandoned school house they rented in Connecticut. It took upwards of an hour for the team to create 12 games with the hand lettering, and in the first year of production, they lost a reported $450. They continued to lose money over the game’s first four years, but Brunout did not give up, as the number of sales looked promising — they’d sold 2000 copies in those first four years.
Everything changed when the game landed in the right hands at the right time.
Jack Straus, Macy’s president, was on vacation over the holidays in 1952 and played Scrabble. He loved it so much that when he returned to work, he found Macy’s did not carry it and immediately sought to get it in stores. Within a year, sales for the game reached 5 million sets and Brunout’s small little retirement business turned into something else entirely. He sold the manufacturing rights to Selchow and Righter, who saw the game as a nice bookstore sideline. Selchow and Righter had originally rejected the game when Butts pitched it to them years before.
Brunout sold all the rights to the game in 1971 to Selchow and Righter, including the ones he owned for producing Scrabble’s Deluxe editions — he found that a manageable way to keep his cottage company going during those “quiet” retirement years. From there, the game changed hands as Selchow and Righter was sold to a company that then went bankrupt and Hasbro bought the rights in 1986, two years after Brunout’s death. Butts died in 1993, living to see his game reach incredible success and live on throughout pop culture.
Scrabble Culture and Scrabble Oddities
One of the most clever changes Butts made when creating his game was that he made a single exception to the use of letter frequency. Where vowels like E are incredibly common, so, too, is the letter S. But Butts did not want to make the game too easy for players to simply slap an S at the end of a word for points. He chose to ignore the frequency of the letter, including only four.
While there are thousands of Scrabble tournaments held round the world, most did not get their start until the early 2000s. Among the most well-known and most competitive are the annual Scrabble Champions Tournament, The Scrabble Players Championship (an open annual competition held in the USA), the National Scrabble Championship (annually held in the UK), the World Youth Scrabble Championships (international), and the National School Scrabble Championships (for North American students). There is also a robust scene for scrabble outside of the USA, UK, and Australia. Since 1997, the Singapore Open Scrabble Championships have been considered a major competition, as has the annual Brand’s Crossword Gams King’s Cup, the largest tournament in the world, held in Thailand. In Thailand, Scrabble is treated like a sport and touted as an excellent way to learn English. The championship draws over 8,000 players and winners receive a trophy from the king, alongside a reported $10,000 prize.
Senegal is a country that many may not associate with Scrabble, but the West African nation has been home to the Francophone World Scrabble Championships. The country’s government has even sponsored trainings to build a strong team. In 2008, Senegalese singer Pape Diouf performed a song for the championship all about the game.
Scrabble also enjoyed a television run in the USA, hosted by Chuck Woolery. It ran from 1984 to 1990, with a short revival in 1993. Scrabble Showdown in 2011 tried to bring the game back to the small screen, but it did not last as long.
Every April 13, Scrabble fans celebrate the game for National Scrabble Day. Though the date feels arbitrary — the game’s evolution took decades and several names — April 13 honors the founder Alfred Butts, who was born on this day.
It comes as little surprise the game remains incredibly popular, and it has adapted to the digital age. There are several official iterations available to play via the web or app. More, the game continues to add new language to its official dictionaries, ensuring that it evolves as the culture evolves. Today, you can also play the game in 29 different languages, including Braille.
The game continues to appear in pop culture. You can dig into documentaries about the game, such as Scrabylon, Word Slingers, and Word Wars, as well as fictional stories of Scrabble in titles like Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf, You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly, Game of Secrets by Dawn Clifton Tripp, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer, and the satirical Escapes by Daniel Tunnard.
Sources and Further Reading
If you want to read more about the history of Scrabble, you’ll do no better than the resources used for the above piece, including:
- Man of Letters from The Pennsylvania Gazette by Stefan Fatsis
- Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis
- A History of the Game Scrabble
- NPR’s Scrabble Episode
- Alfred Butts Balanced Risk and Reward To Create Hit Word Game of Scrabble