A Timeline of Scrabble History (Butts, Brunot, Hasbro, …)

Scrabble Board Game | Old Scrabble Box
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Scrabble is a much-loved board game, but where does it really come from, and how was the Scrabble concept born? It is an interesting question, especially considering that many of my fond family memories revolve around time spent playing board games, particularly Scrabble. 

How much do I really know about the roots of the game? While Scrabble has formed such an integral part of my upbringing, I recently gave some thought to its history and where it comes from. What I found out about Scrabble was quite interesting. 

Scrabble History Timeline (according to Hasbro)

1933:Alfred Mosher Butts invented the first version of Scrabble and called it “Lexiko”.
1938:Butts added a 15×15 board and renamed the game to “Criss-Cross Words”.
1940s:During many years, without success, Butts attempted to sell the game to large manufacturers.
1948:Butts partnered up with James Brunot; they made some changes and, once again, renamed the game to “Scrabble”.
Early 1950s:Jack Strauss, Macy’s president, made the first large order of the game.
1952:Selchow & Righter Company, a game manufacturer, bought the rights to sell Scrabble.  
1972:Selchow & Righter bought the Scrabble trademark ownership from Brunot. 
1986:Coleco Industries purchased Selchow & Righter. 
1989:After Coleco went bankrupt, Hasbro purchased its assets, which included Scrabble. 

Scrabble, as we know it today, was not conceptualized and immediately popular as many of us might think it was. Scrabble went through a few ups and downs, trials and tribulations before it became the household name that it is today. 

As far as board games go, Scrabble’s history is a touching one to me. From the research I have done, it is evident that it is a story of passion that, together with hard work, turned a humble home-made board game into a world-renowned must-have entertainment item. If you would like to learn a bit more about the finer details of the history of Scrabble, keep reading.

Old Scrabble Box on Vintage Wooden Table
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The History of Scrabble

The inventor: Alfred Mosher Butts

During the 1930s, Alfred Mosher Butts was an unemployed architect trying to survive the Great Depression, just like everybody else. But there was something different about Alfred Butts…he loved to analyze games. 

The unemployed architect spent a lot of time analyzing various games and eventually came to the conclusion that the only reason why word-based games were not as popular as dice and card games was because there was no scoring system attached. And so he set out to create a scoring word game. The concept of Scrabble was thus born. 

From Lexiko to Criss-Cross Words

Butts actually first combined elements of anagramming with classic crossword puzzles to create a game called Lexiko (1933), but later, he spent some time refining the game and came out with what he called Criss Cross Words (1938)It is said that Alfred Butts used the front page of The New York Times to come up with the common letter distribution that is currently used in the game. 

One would have thought that if Criss Cross Words was anything like the Scrabble we know and love today, it would have become popular quite quickly, but that was not Alfred’s experience at all. Alfred had great faith in his game and approached several big game manufacturers; all of which turned him away, unfortunately. 

Luckily Alfred did not let the rejection of his game let him give up on it, or we might never have had Scrabble to enjoy! Instead of giving up, he persisted. He kept pushing his game until he met an interesting person called James Brunot. The very person set to change the path of Scrabble’s history for the first time.

The Current Version of Scrabble Was Born 

Scrabble word game - First developed in 1938 by Alfred Mosher Butts
Lenscap Photography / Shutterstock.com

A few years after coming up with Criss Cross Words, Alfred met a board game obsessed entrepreneur called James Brunot, who showed great interest in the game. James made it his mission to bring commercial success to Criss Cross as he saw it had some great potential. In fact, he sat down with Alfred, and together they went over the design, the rules, the gameplay, and finally the name. 

Changes were made to make the game more enjoyable and attractive to game board enthusiasts. The most important change was undoubtedly the change of the game’s name. Together they decided to change the name from Criss Cross Words to Scrabble. The name ‘Scrabble’ was trademarked in 1948 and thus the game as we know it was born. 

The Brunots Work Tirelessly to Grow Scrabble

When James Brunot took on the marketing of the Scrabble game, he started out working from a small abandoned schoolhouse in Connecticut. He rented the property and intended to use it to grow the game through self-manufacturing and self-marketing too. He and a few of his friends worked tirelessly to manufacture a total of 12 games per hour. There was obviously a lot of effort involved as each letter hand to be hand-stamped onto each tile. 

It was still quite sometime before a factory took over the manufacturing of these pieces. There was nothing easy about getting Scrabble off the ground, even though many people had an interest in it. 

Apparently, the first 4 years of the game’s production were slow. In fact, in the year of 1949, the team lost a whopping $450, but they did not give up even with this setback. While they had made a loss, they had also manufactured and sold over 2,000 games, which was promising. While the group was running at a loss, the game was starting to grow in popularity. The number of consumers of the game began to increase, and James Brunot kept up production. 

Macy’s Places a Large Order for Scrabble in the 1950s

In the early 1950s, while James Brunot was working hard to keep Scrabble afloat in his little rented schoolhouse, the president of MACY’S, Jack Strauss, was enjoying a holiday. It was this holiday that is accredited to today’s popularity of Scrabble. While on this holiday, MACY’S president encountered a Scrabble game and decided to give it a try. He was instantly hooked, thoroughly enjoyed it, and became interested in purchasing the game to stock in his stores, which were country-wide. 

Sign marks the centennial of its Macy's Herald Square Building in midtown Manhattan
Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

When Strauss got back from holiday, he placed a large order with James Brunot, which is said to be the very order that put Scrabble on board-game lover’s map. MACY’S was the store that changed the path of Scrabble’s history for the second time. It could be said that if it wasn’t for MACY’S, you might never have encountered the game of Scrabble! That’s something to think about.

How Scrabble Became a Hasbro Game

Scrabble didn’t stay a privately owned game for very long. You might be wondering; but how did Scrabble become a game that is now owned and distributed by Hasbro? Well, that one is easy to answer. A game so popular was bound to cross borders, wasn’t it? 

Word of the Scrabble had spread far and wide due to its popularity with MACY’S customers. As it grew and demands on production rose, the small production team started to feel the heat. 

In 1952, James Brunot is then said to have licensed Selchow & Righter Company, which was a game manufacturer, to manufacture, market, and distribute the game across the USA and Canada. In 1972, the manufacturer had increased sales so much that they requested to buy the rights to trademark – and they did. Now Scrabble was owned by a big game manufacturer about 30 years after the creator of the game initially approached large game companies with his game concept. What await!

How did Hasbro become the final owner of the game and its rights? Well, at the time (in 1986), Selchow & Righter was sold to Coleco (remember the creators of the ever famous Cabbage Patch Dolls? That is them!), and thereafter things did not bode well for the company. Unfortunately, a few years later, Coleco went bankrupt, which left Hasbro in a perfect position to purchase the game rights (1989) – and they did. And that is how the game of Scrabble became a firm favorite in nearly every single American home. 

Scrabble Today

What about Scrabble as we know it today? Well, the good news is that Scrabble is still pretty much the same, many decades after it was invented. Nowadays, Scrabble needs no introduction to the average person. Most people have heard of it and played it at some point. There are even various editions and variations, including the travel size version, standard version, deluxe version, and online (app) version.

Scrabble has been a game that has merely grown in popularity. Currently, it has its very own dictionary that includes words that can be used in the game.  

Last Word

As you can see from the interesting history of Scrabble and how it all unfolded, the game has come a long way and faced many challenges. I am prone to believe that the game is due every bit of its success. Now that you know a little more about the game and where it comes from, you can mention it in your next Scrabble game!

If you’re more of a visual learner, I suggest you take a look at the following clip from the YouTube Channel: Today I Found Out

Video Source: YouTube / Today I Found Out