Otherwise “Parkerized”: Oral Histories from Parker Brothers

Parker Games advertisement, 1910s, from George S. Parker scrapbook “Advertising and Misc.,” 1905, 1913-1921. Philip E. Orbanes papers, The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Parker Brothers, founded in Salem, Massachusetts in 1883, published more than 1,800 games during its existence. To this day, many of their products—such as Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Sorry!, and Ouija—probably still live on shelves or in closets around your home. Parker Brothers remained a family-owned company until 1968, when it was purchased by General Mills. By 1985, General Mills merged their Parker Brothers division with another subsidiary, Kenner, to create Kenner Parker Toys.

Parker Brothers executives, undated; includes Robert B. M. Barton (2nd from left) and George S. Parker (seated). Philip E. Orbanes papers, The Strong, Rochester, New York.

In 1986, Professor John J. Fox of Salem State College (now Salem State University) embarked on a project to interview various former and current employees of Parker Brothers, which had been such a presence in that region of Massachusetts. He met with nine people: a worker who knew George S. Parker during the 1910s, a skilled jigsaw cutter for Parker’s famous Pastime Puzzles of the 1920s and 1930s, company executives with decades of experience, and of course, those who remembered the happy chaos when Monopoly became a big hit. Among Fox’s interviewees were Channing “Bill” Bacall, grand-nephew of G.S. Parker; Robert B. M. Barton, son-in-law of G. S. Parker; Randolph “Ranny” Barton, Robert’s son and G. S. Parker’s grandson; George Fox, an executive who was still working at Parker Brothers in 1986; Angie Gagnon, who cut jigsaw puzzles for more than 30 years; Harry Manning, who worked at Parker Brothers in 1915; Helen Mitchell, former secretary of G. S. Parker; Henry Sullivan, Traffic Manager at Parker Brothers for 40 years; and Louis Vanne, who retired after 47 years at the company. Their recollections proved fascinating and helped Fox to supplement his traditional records-based research in the Parker Brothers archives. Fox published the article “Parker Pride: Memories of Working Days at Parker Brothers” in the April 1987 issue of Essex Institute Historical Collections. Fox later made and distributed copies of the audiocassette recordings from his interviews, signing letters of transfer for these audiocassette recordings to be made public for research purposes.

Photograph of Charles Darrow playing Monopoly. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

The Strong had previously acquired two sets of these cassettes: one from Anne Williams, jigsaw puzzle expert, and the other from Phil Orbanes—an authority on Monopoly and Parker Brothers. This spring, I worked to digitize the audio for preservation and access. After realizing that no textual transcripts accompanied these valuable recordings, staff members at The Strong transcribed the audio interviews. These materials from the Parker Brothers Oral History Project collection are now available to access online on our Preservica Universal Access portal.

We’re excited to share these incredible transcripts with researchers from around the world. They offer a glimpse into a past where a small company felt an obligation to the citizens of its town; where gorgeous wooden puzzles were handmade, one piece at a time; where employees had such camaraderie that they stayed in a position for decades; and where the massive success of a single board game made Parker Brothers a household name. Professor Fox sought to document the company from its early days up through its acquisition by General Mills in 1968, and his research has helped game enthusiasts and historians alike. Don’t you want to see what it was like to be “Parkerized”?

Article by Julia Novakovic, Archivist, The Strong National Museum of Play.

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