Click Print on your browser to print the article.
Close this window to return to the ANB Online.
Butts, Alfred Mosher (13 Apr. 1899-4 Apr. 1993), board game inventor and architect, was born Alfred Mosher Butts in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of Allison Butts, a lawyer, and Arrie Elizabeth Mosher, a high school teacher. An earnest, diligent student, Butts was also the editor of his school yearbook. He graduated from Poughkeepsie High School in 1917; went on to the Pratt Institute, in New York City; and in 1924 took a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was also a member of the school's chess team. The next year he married Nina Ostrander, a biological technician who had been one of his teachers in high school; the couple had no children. Immediately after graduation, Butts got a job as a draftsman with the architecture firm of Arthur C. Holden and Associates (later Holden, McLaughlin and Associates), for whom he designed suburban homes in Westchester and nearby counties.
During the Great Depression, Butts's firm cut salaries by 20 percent. He survived for a year, but in 1931 he was laid off. He remained in contact with the profession--he published an article in the March 1933 issue of American Architect analyzing the relationship of rent levels and construction costs--but until 1935 he held no job in his field. In the early 1930s he made unsuccessful efforts to supplement his meager income by writing for magazines and the stage, and in 1934 he worked for a time as a statistician for a federal welfare agency. His skill as a draftsman prompted him to try his hand at art, too, but his watercolors found almost no buyers, and he did little better with prints of New York scenes, drawn in India ink on architect's linen and run through a blueprint machine in editions of 150. The Museum of Modern Art eventually accepted three of these from one of his patrons and purchased three more from the artist.
A more ambitious project stemmed from his lifelong taste for chess, crossword puzzles, and anagrams, and around 1930 he began developing a new game that he hoped he could sell. He analyzed the field and classified table games into three types: number games, like bingo; board games, like chess; and word games, like anagrams. In a brief unpublished essay, "Study of Games," he wrote that a word game played "not with a jumble of letters but with a mixture so proportioned that the individual letters will occur in the same frequency as they do in normal word formation" would have "a proper speed and snap; an excellent balance between the skill of the players and the luck of the draw" (Fatsis, pp. 92-93). He tallied the letters in periodicals of the time, assigned a point value to each according to its frequency of use, and designed a game in which players competed by arranging randomly drawn letters into words. He called the game Lexiko and constructed sets on his kitchen table by gluing letters onto plywood tiles and constructing racks to hold them. In 1933 he began trying to sell the game individually from his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York.
Butts sold two sets in October of that year and by August 1934 had sold eighty-four, for $1.50 each, at a net loss of $20.43. He kept working on the game, tweaking the rules and adding a board, and tried marketing it as "Criss Cross Words," and, later, as "It," but failed, twice, to secure a patent on it or to interest any manufacturers. When his job with Holden, McLaughlin and Associates, his old architectural firm, was restored in 1935, he put the game away and went back to designing houses. It was not until 1947 that his hopes for the game were renewed, when James Brunot, the director of the President's War Relief Control Board in Washington, D.C., during World War II and a fan of Criss Cross Words, offered to buy the rights to the game, manufacture and market it, and pay Butts a royalty of about two-and-a-half cents on each set sold. Brunot made a few changes in the rules and the design of the board and renamed the game Scrabble; in 1948 he copyrighted the board design, trademarked the name, and began production. Sales were modest at first; 1949 saw 2,313 sets sold, bringing Butts royalties of $149.27 (Fatsis, p. 101). Two years later, his earnings amounted to only $135.43.
Scrabble did not become popular until 1952, when, according to tradition, Jack Straus, the president of Macy's department store, in New York, saw the game being played while on his summer vacation in Long Island and directed the store to stock it. Sales nationwide soared from 4,853 in 1951 to 3,798,555 in 1954, including 100,000 in foreign languages and a Braille edition. The game became a national craze, generating Scrabble clubs all over the country, a newsletter, and a National Scrabble Association; Look magazine observed in 1953 that Scrabble had "turned the dictionary into a best-read book in the U.S. homes" ("Word Rage," p. 50). By the end of the century, Scrabble stood as the second-best-selling game, after Monopoly, in U.S. history, with estimated sales of more than 100 million sets in many languages and in twenty-one countries.
Butts's life was little affected by his success. He lived modestly and continued at his regular job; in 1953 he designed the Community Methodist Church education building in his home neighborhood of Jackson Heights and later designed a housing project on Staten Island. In 1970 he cofounded and designed the Stanford Free Library, in Stanfordville, New York, where his parents and grandparents had lived. Never involved with marketing the game, Butts was happy in 1971 to sell the game's rights to the manufacturer Selchow and Righter (one of the companies that had refused Criss Cross Words nearly four decades earlier) for $265,000. He calculated that his total income from his invention was $1,066,500, of which he once stated, "One-third [of the royalties] went to taxes. I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life" (New York Times obituary). His royalties permitted him to buy his family home in Stanfordville, to which he retired 1978. In his old age he received some national recognition, making guest appearances at some Scrabble tournaments. Seeking to capitalize on his belated celebrity, he invented another word game, which Selchow and Righter marketed without much success as "Alfred's Other Game." In the fall of 1987, Butts had an automobile accident from which he never fully recovered. He suffered a stroke during his month in the hospital and was placed in a nursing home, where he spent his remaining days. He died in nearby Rhinebeck, New York.
Personal papers of Alfred Butts and some artifacts and memorabilia relating to the game he invented are in the possession of his grandnephew Robert Butts at the family home in Stanfordville, N.Y. Among the many magazine articles on Scrabble and its creator, see especially "Gnus Nix Zax--Tut," Time, 20 July 1953; Robert Wallace, "A Man Makes a Best-Selling Game--Scrabble--and Achieves His Ambition (Spelled Out Above)," Life, 14 Dec. 1953; "Word Rage," Look, 29 Dec. 1953; Paul Katzeff, "Entrepreneur Alfred Butts Scrabbled for His Success; Never Give Up: It Took 18 Years, but His Imagination and Commitment Helped Create One of the World's Most Beloved Pastimes," Investor's Business Daily, 23 Dec. 2005; Oliver Burkeman, "Spell Bound," Guardian, 28 June 2008; and Judith Thurman, "Spreading the Word," New Yorker, 19 Jan. 2009. The most detailed examination of the origins and evolution of Scrabble, its market, and its community of sometimes compulsive enthusiasts in international competition is Stefan Fatsis, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble (2001). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Newsday, 7 Apr. 1993, and U.S. News and World Report, 19 Apr. 1993.
Back to the top
Dennis Wepman. "Butts, Alfred Mosher";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.