Alfred M. Butts, inventor of Scrabble

Alfred M. Butts,  as a jobless architect in the Depression invented the enduringly popular board game Scrabble. Although its sales eventually approached 100 million sets, Scrabble languished for nearly two decades, rejected by major game manufacturers as unmarketable. Mr. Butts was a fan of chess, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. Working in his fifth floor walk-up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he designed the new game to be based on knowledge, strategy and chance. He lined the original playing board into small squares and cut the 100 lettered wooden tiles by hand. First players of the game included his wife and family friends. Mrs. Butts becoming a better player than Alfred and once scoring 234 points with “quixotic.”

The game remained among friends, one of them even volunteering to be its salesman after his retirement and giving it the name “Scrabble”. He sold a few, but it wasn’t until it was seen being played at a resort by a vacationing Macy’s executive that the game took off. The executive convinced the company to carry the game and the Butts’ lives were never the same. Orders started pouring in. Thirty-five workers hired to churn out 6,000 sets a week could not meet the

 

demand. The game was eventually turned over to a company that had initially rejected it.

 

For many years Mr. Butts earned royalties, which he said were about three cents a set. “One-third went to taxes,” he said. “I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.”

Mr. Butts died at the age of 93 in 1993. A street sign honoring him went up in Jackson Heights in 1995.

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