Timing was everything in the brief, almost forgotten architectural career of Alfred Mosher Butts, better known as the inventor of Scrabble. When Butts graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's school of architecture in 1924, the economy was percolating along and the New York skyline was just beginning its rapid rise. Butts signed on with Holden McLaughlin and Associates, a big Manhattan firm that assigned him to design elegant country houses for the well-to-do. The 1929 crash put a quick end to any dreams of glory. Fortunately for generations of game players and word lovers, Butts was laid off.
As Butt's grandnephew, Robert R. Butts, recounts the tale, the architect spent much of the 1930s trying to support himself as the Depression deepened. He cast his lot with the Works Progress Administration (the younger Butts isn't sure in what capacity) and struggled to make his way as an artist. He used the architectural blueprint process to develop a printing method for brownish etchings of New York streetscapes, which he referred to as his “Van Dyck prints.” Some of his watercolors were exhibited at galleries, and six etchings now reside in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But “he wasn't very successful,” Robert Butts says.
Meanwhile, Alfred Butts noticed that a new game called Monopoly was making a fortune for its creator. Deciding that word games were a relatively untapped market, Butts studied the front page of The New York Times, calculating letter frequency. By 1934, the results of Butts' cryptographic analysis inspired a game called “Lexiko.” Always tinkering, Butts then added a board component (which he made himself by pasting architectural blueprint on old chessboards) and called it “Criss-Cross Words.” A decade and a business partner later, the game surfaced as “Scrabble.” It took off in the early 1950s when the owner of Macy's got hooked, and Butts earned a total of $1,066,500, according to Stefan Fatsis' 2001 book, Word Freak. It was a small fortune by modern standards—less than his partner received, but enough to enable Butts and his wife to move from a rental apartment in Jackson Heights to an 1811 family homestead in Stanfordville, N.Y., where Robert Butts now resides.
Beyond 100 million board games, recognizable around the world, little is known about Alfred Butts' legacy as a designer. He claimed credit for a 1950s public housing development on Staten Island, which is known today as the General Berry Houses, and he designed a small library in Stanfordville, probably pro bono, in the 1960s. There are also “probably a bunch of very fine houses in Greenwich and Westchester,” the grandnephew says.
The price of history: 1953 vintage Scrabble sets with wooden tiles and original boxes have starting bids of $0.99 to $9.99 on eBay.