A Short History of Scrabble

scrabble in progress

Starting in 1938, all the giant toymakers rejected Alfred Butts’ idea for a new word game – all except for a retiree in Newtown, Conn., who saw the potential in the game we now know as Scrabble.

It’s only fitting the word game took root in New England, where the Puritans brought with them the highest level of literacy in the North American colonies.

Aversion to Spelling

Alfred Butts was a shy architect who lost his job in 1931. (OK, he lived in Jackson Heights, Queens.) He was an amateur artist who tried making a living at painting, but that didn’t work. So got a part-time job as a statistician and decided to create a board game he could sell.

Street sign in Jackson Heights

Street sign in Jackson Heights

It took him seven years to come up with the right balance of numbers and letters. Maybe it was because he didn't like spelling.

Butts came up with the idea for Scrabble while reading a short story by Edgar Allan Poe (a Boston native). In Poe’s The Gold Bug, a character decodes a message by comparing symbols to letters. Poe wrote,

Now, in English, the letter which most frequently occurs is e. Afterwards, the succession runs thus: a o i d h n r s t u y c f g l m w b k p q x z.

Butts figured out the number of each letter in the Scrabble game by counting the letters from such newspapers as The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Evening Post. He sampled 12,082 letters and 2,412 words to come up with the presumably statistically reliable breakdown of letters. He called the game Lexiko.

The game had no board. For four years Alfred Butts sold Lexiko to friends, and tried to interest the Parker Brothers in Salem, Mass., and Milton Bradley in Springfield, Mass. No dice.

He added a board to Lexiko so words could be created crossword style, and called the game Criss-Cross Words. He made the games himself, hand- lettering the tiles and gluing them to balsa wood. They sold for $2.

Somehow Butts came into contact with James Brunot, a former social worker looking to start a business in his home in Newtown. They struck a deal that gave Butts a small royalty for each copy of the game sold.


James Brunot

James Brunot

Brunot bought strips of scrap lumber, silk screened letters onto them and hired woodworkers to saw them into tiles. He ordered the boards from a New York game company, Selchow & Righter, which made games for other companies. Brunot and his wife Helen renamed the game Scrabble and assembled 2,251 copies in their living room during 1949. They lost $450.

The Brunots soldiered along, selling a few hundred games a week, until one day in 1952. They came home from a week’s vacation to find orders for more than 2,000 games.

According to legend, a Macy's department store executive had discovered the game while at a summer resort and ordered them for the department store shelves. To keep up with demand, James and Helen Brunot moved production to an abandoned schoolhouse in Newtown, then to a converted woodworking shop.

They hired workers to put the game together, but by late 1952 they could only make 6,000 games a week -- not enough to keep up with orders. Brunot licensed the game to Selchow & Righter, but kept the rights to make a deluxe version himself. Why was it deluxe? Pieces were made with plastic.

In 1953, Selchow & Righter sold 800,000 Scrabble games, but still couldn’t keep up with demand. Christmas shoppers had to either put their names on a waiting list or linger by a store counter hoping for a new shipment to arrive.

ScrabbleThe peak year for Scrabble sales was 1954, with 4 million copies sold. Today 150 million Scrabble have been sold in 121 countries in 29 languages.

Coleco bought Selchow & Righter in 1986, and three years later Coleco was purchased by Hasbro -- a Pawtucket, R.I., based company.

Alfred Butts retired on his Scrabble royalties. He liked to say, ‘one-third went to taxes, I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.’

Scrabble Facts

With thanks to Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them by Tim Walsh.


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