How one of America’s most beloved games started in Jackson Heights

Find the Scrabble street sign on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street. Photo by  Clark Gregor via Flickr .

Find the Scrabble street sign on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street. Photo by Clark Gregor via Flickr.

By Victoria Merlino

The next time you play Scrabble, score some serious points with these two words: J-a-c-k-s-o-n H-e-i-g-h-t-s — the game’s birthplace.

Though you can now find the quintessential word scramble game in living room cabinets, phones and classrooms across the nation, the first game of Scrabble was dreamed up in Queens.  

Architect Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game in his Jackson Heights garden apartment after first conceiving of the idea between 1931 and 1933 — there’s some contention around the official date. According to legend, Butts used The New York Times’ front page as the basis for the distribution of letters in the game, calculating how often certain letters appear in English words. 

As the Great Depression rolled through the United States, Butts created different iterations of the game, refining it through playthroughs with family and friends at Community Methodist Church on 35th Avenue, before trademarking the Scrabble we know today in 1948. 

Butts’ invention was initially not a hit with game manufacturers or the public, and he and his investor James Brunot lost $450 in 1949. The game’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1950s after the president of the department store Macy’s allegedly ordered games to his store after seeing it on vacation.

Today, Scrabble is beloved by amateur and competitive wordsmiths alike, with tournaments occurring throughout the country. Three out of every five U.S. homes has a Scrabble set, according to parent company Hasbro Gaming’s website.

Though Scrabble’s Queens roots may not be widely publicized, Jackson Heights hasn’t forgotten its history. City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, who represents the neighborhood, helped to install a street sign honoring the game on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street in 2011. This was the second iteration of the sign, which had mysteriously disappeared years before.  

“It’s important for communities to identify having historic places,” Dromm told the Eagle on why he lobbied for the sign’s return. “It’s an important piece of Jackson Heights history.”

Made in Queens Monday is an ongoing column honoring some of the borough’s greatest inventions.