– PEOPLE WORTH REMEMBERING –

Alfred Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on April 13th, 1899.    His father was a lawyer, and his mother a high school teacher. He graduated from Poughkeepsie High School in 1917, attended the Pratt Institute in New York City, and in 1924 went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in Architecture.

In October of 1925, at the age of 26, he married his high school biology teacher, who was 42. They remained together until her death in 1979 at the age of 96.

He got a job at an architecture firm and worked there from 1925 until 1931. When the Great Depression hit, he was suddenly laid off. During his unexpected free time, he decided he wanted to design a new game.

After studying the most popular games, he grouped them into three types: Games based on numbers, such as dice and card games; board games such as chess and checkers; and games based on words and letters. So he decided to create a game that used both math and letters.

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Every day he dissected each article on the front page of the New York Times, keeping statistical track of which letters were used most frequently. He then assigned a point value to each letter of the alphabet: commonly used letters such as A and E were worth only a single point, while rarely used letters like Q and Z were worth ten points. Words were formed in a crossword style fashion on the table-top. Later he added a board. He named the game Lexico.

By the time he set out to sell the game, the name of the game was Criss-Cross Words. Every single game manufacturer that he offered it to turned it down.

Then Butts teamed up with a game aficionado named James Brunot, who was savvy about marketing. It was Brunot who renamed the game “Scrabble” meaning “to scratch frantically.” Brunot bought the rights to the game, agreeing to pay Butts a royalty for every set sold. In 1949, his first year of sales, he sold only 2,400 copies. Meanwhile, Alfred Butts returned to his career as an architect.

Sales struggled along until a breakthrough in 1952: Jack Straus, the president of Macy’s department store, vacationed at a resort that had a copy of the game in the lobby. He was hooked, and ordered Macy’s – the largest store in the country at the time – to carry the game. Soon they were moving 6,000 copies per week. By 1954 Brunot and his new company sold over 3.8 million sets.

By now Brunot was unable to keep up with demand, so the rights to the game hopscotched from one game manufacture to the next, with Brunot always staying true to his word to ensure Alfred Butts received a royalty. By the time Hasbro won the rights to the game, millions of sets had been sold.

Butts estimated that his royalties came down to about three cents per set sold. “One-third went to taxes, I gave one third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.” He enjoyed a long, distinguished career as an architect. In his later years, he designed a card game played with letter cards, which he dubbed “Aldred’s Other Game.” It never took off. In his spare time, he became an artist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns six of his paintings.

Butts died in 1993 just before his 94th birthday, having lived long enough to see his game become one of the most popular games on the planet.