Red Houses dot a British Monopoly board

Insight - 11/28/22

Design Object Series N. 002

6 min

By the IW team

Monopoly, the Fire Escape + the Medical Syringe

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three design objects from the turn of the century and the pioneering women behind them: Monopoly, the outrageously popular board game designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1904, the fire escape, designed by Anna Connelly in 1887, and the one-handed medical syringe, designed by Letitia Geer in 1899.


Design Objects: Monopoly
Monopoly was designed in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie. Photo courtesy of Mike_Fleming.

You know the game: two to eight players battle it out for domination by buying and developing properties, and forcing their opponents into bankruptcy. These days you can play the classic game or one of hundreds of themed spin-offs; Star Wars, Pokemon, Game of Thrones, The Simpsons…it is an ever-expanding catalogue.

The game was developed and patented in Washington DC by stenographer and leftwing feminist Elizabeth Magie in 1903. It was originally called The Landlord’s Game and was in Magie’s words, “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences. It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life’, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”

The colorful boardgame that became Monopoly
The Landlord’s Game per Elizabeth Magie’s 1924 patent. Photo courtesy of Lucius Kwok.

Magie was a follower of American economist Henry George, and wanted to create a tool to teach others about the danger of wealth disparity and the exploitation of tenants by landlords. She had the bright idea of using a new, growing medium to engage the economic student: the board game. The game was immediately popular with children and adults alike, spreading by word of mouth and capitalizing on the pull of competitive play. Magie’s role as innovator was unfortunately overshadowed by the opportunistic entrepreneur who coopted her concept. The game was appropriated by Charles Darrow, who claimed it as his own invention and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1932, erasing Magie from the origin story as he made millions. The myth that Darrow is the creator persists to this day, but we know better.

The Fire Escape

Design Objects: Fire Escape
The fire escape was designed by Anna Connelly in 1887. Photo courtesy of Chris Bertram.

While Magie wanted to educate people about economics, the next pioneer wanted to save their lives. The fire escape is an emergency exit, usually exterior to a building (though not necessarily), that provides an alternative to a stairwell, which might be inaccessible or compromised in an emergency. For those in urban environments, they are an omnipresent feature of the landscape, peppering every multi-story building, particularly residential buildings. The Interwoven Design office is in Brooklyn, New York, so we see hundreds of fire escapes on residential brownstones every day. They can range from chunky and utilitarian to colorful and statement-making.

a blue fire escape with a mural on the building behind it
Fire escapes in cities today are often seen as a decorative opportunity, as with this blue fire escape in SoHo featuring a mural. Photo courtesy of David Paul Ohmer.

Their invention was a response to 19th century building codes, which were in turn responding to the overcrowding in cities in England and the deaths that resulted from inadequate exits, especially by fire. Builders liked that they could be easily retrofit to existing buildings as well as inexpensively incorporated into new designs. While a range of strategies were developed independently in large cities during the industrial revolution, Connelly’s design is the ancestor of the modern fire escape, the classic zig zag structure running up an exterior. For a taste of historic detail, check out Connelly’s original patent.

While the fire escape was meeting a critical need in growing cities, there were problems with the concept. They weren’t uniformly effective, and the convenient platforms and railings were too tempting as makeshift patios, outdoor sleeping quarters, drying racks, and more, especially in poor neighborhoods. Even today, though technically illegal, repurposed fire escapes are a common sight.

One-handed Medical Syringe

Both the fire escape and the medical syringe have saved countless lives in the decades since their invention, and both objects have negative arguments against them in our current culture. The fire escapes are used in ways that were never intended, and the one-handed syringe has facilitated drug abuse for millions.

The concept of the syringe has been around since the ancient Roman era, but originally the devices were used topically to apply creams and ointments. Syringes weren’t used to inject substances subcutaneously until the development of the hollow needle in 1844, and weren’t tolerable until years later when the technology to make the needle much finer was available. In all that time, using a syringe was a two-handed affair for medical professionals. That all changed in 1899, when Letitia Mumford Geer, a nurse from New York, was granted a patent for an “in a hand-syringe”, or a one-handed syringe. This allowed a medical professional or even a patient to perform an injection with ease. While the materials of the syringe have been gradually improved over time, adopting material advancements as they became available, the fundamental technology has not changed. 

Very little is known about Geer beyond the US census records and the information on the patent itself. She was born in New York 1853 and died there in 1935 at the age of 83. She had three brothers, and she was a nurse. Unfortunately this is all we know about her, despite her incredible contribution to medical design.

The device was described as consisting of “a cylinder, a piston and an operating-rod which is bent upon itself to form a smooth and rigid arm terminating in a hand, which, in its extreme positions, is located within reach of the fingers of the hand which holds the cylinder, thus permitting one hand to hold and operate the syringe.” 

A diagram of Geer’s syringe design per her 1899 patent. Image via the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The patent outlines the operation of the syringe as follows: 

“The handle can be drawn into a position near to the cylinder while injecting the medicine by the use of one hand, thereby enabling the operator to use the syringe himself without the aid of an assistant. The advantages of the medical syringe are several. The syringe is very simple and cheap. It can be operated with one hand.”

The syringe opened up the possibility of self-administering medicine, and could be produced inexpensively. The glass components could be sterilized, a development that evolved into more and more of the parts of the syringe being glass or metal to allow a greater level of hygiene in injections. These improvements, better sterilization and one-handed action, have saved countless lives over the decades since Geer’s invention.

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