Starting in 1938, every single giant toymaker in the United States rejected Alfred Butts’ idea for a new word game. All, that is, except for a retiree in Newtown, Conn., who saw the potential in the game we now know as Scrabble.
Aversion to Spelling
Alfred Butts was a shy architect from Jackson Heights, Queens, who lost his job in 1931. As an amateur artist he tried making a living at painting, but that didn’t work. So he got a part-time job as a statistician and decided to create a game he could sell.
Butts came up with the idea for Scrabble while reading a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. 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.
Ironically, Alfred Butts didn’t like to spell.
It took him seven years to come up with the right balance of numbered letters. He figured out the number for 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. Then Alfred Butts called the game Lexiko.
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 Alfred Butts a small royalty for each copy of the game sold.
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.
But the Brunots soldiered along, selling a few hundred games a week, until one day in 1952. That day 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? Because pieces were made with plastic.
An Enjoyable Life
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.
Coleco bought Selchow & Righter in 1986. Then three years later, Hasbro — a Pawtucket, R.I., based company — bought Coleco.
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 Fun Facts
- One out of every three American households has a Scrabble game – and more than half of British households.
- There are an estimated 1 million Scrabble tiles lost in the world — somewhere.
- The North American record for high-scoring tournament game was set in 2011 by former World Champion Joel Sherman when he scored 803 points at an event in Stamford, Conn.
- Benjammin Woo discovered a way to earn 1782 points – the highest possible score — for OXYPHENBUTAZONE. He played it across the top of the board, hitting three Triple Word Score squares while making seven crosswords downward.
- In 2006, a carpenter named Michael Cresta and a supermarket worker named Wayne Yorra set three records for sanctioned Scrabble in North America while playing in a Unitarian church in Lexington, Mass. They set records for most points in a game by one player (830), the most total points in a game (1,320) and the most points on a single word (365, for QUIXOTRY).
- John Chew, co-president of the North American SCRABBLE Players Association (NASPA), got death threats when he removed the two-letter word ‘da’ from the Scrabble Dictionary.
- Richard Nixon regularly played Scrabble in the White House. Other aficionados included Queen Elizabeth, John Travolta, Mel Gibson and Vladimir Nabokov.
- Every hour, people start at least 30,000 Scrabble games.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired six of Alfred Butts’ paintings.
- The first annual National School SCRABBLE® Championship took place in Boston on April 26, 2003.
- In New England the literacy rate was 60 percent between 1650-1670, 85 percent between 1758- 1762 and 90 percent between 1787-1795 – far higher than in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s why Scrabble took root here!
With thanks to Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them by Tim Walsh. This story about Scrabble was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about the Parker Brothers in Salem, Mass., here.