Butts, Alfred Mosher

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Butts, Alfred Mosher

(b. 13 April 1899 in Poughkeepsie, New York; d. 4 April 1993 in Rhinebeck, New York), architect and inventor of the board game Scrabble.

Butts was the youngest of five boys born to Allison Butts, a lawyer, and Arrie Elizabeth Mosher, a high school teacher. Both parents were descended from Dutchess County, New York, farm families. Games, especially chess and anagrams, dominated family life. Alfred was said to have added a wild-card letter square to an anagram game that the Butts played, an idea he would later use in Scrabble.

After graduation from Poughkeepsie High School in 1917, Butts studied architecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and received his degree in architecture in 1924 from the University of Pennsylvania. He practiced for most of his career with the New York firm Holden, McLaughlin and Associates. Butts designed several buildings, most notably the $6.5 million Charles W. Berry Housing project on Staten Island, New York, and the Stanford Free Library, which he cofounded, in Stanfordville, New York.

Butts married Nina Ostrander, a high school teacher, on 3 October 1925. They had no children. They lived for many years in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in the borough of Queens, New York City. Work was scarce after 1929, but Butts did publish an article in American Architect (March 1933) outlining a formula for determining the rent of low-cost housing units based on the construction costs. The article’s text and charts reveal his attention to detail and analytical skill. When he was unemployed from 1931 to 1935 during the Great Depression, Butts invented what he hoped would be a marketable adult game based on skill, strategy, and chance.

Using 100 anagram letter tiles, four wooden mah-jongg racks, and a cribbage board to keep score, he tinkered with combining anagram and crossword puzzle concepts, naming it at various times, “Lexico,” “It,” and “Criss-Cross Words.” By analyzing the number of times that letters of the alphabet appeared on the front page of the New York Times, Butts determined the proportion of individual letters for the game: one Z but twelve E’s, and so forth. He weighted the worth of each letter according to its frequency: vowels received one point, Q’s and X’s, ten. In a 1984 radio interview with Bob Edwards on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Butts recalled, “I made up some sets. Nothing very much happened, though. Then suddenly, I got the idea, how about playing on a board. And that’s what developed into what I call criss-cross words.” He glued architectural graph paper on a chessboard to create 225 squares. Sixty-one premium squares could double or triple the value of either letters or whole words. Although the game looked like a crossword puzzle, players did not need to know word meanings. The game could be played by two to four players, and each played with seven letter tiles, which were replenished after each play until the tiles were gone. Butts forbade proper names or abbreviations but allowed Greek letters and names from the musical scale. By 1938 the game was essentially in its final form, and Butts had made and sold a number of sets but found no manufacturer. By then he was back at work as an architect.

In 1948 his old friend James Brunot, the former executive director of the War Relief Control Board, approached Butts about manufacturing and distributing the game. Butts would receive three cents for each game sold. They redesigned the game, named it Scrabble, and registered the trademark. Brunot and his wife set up a home manufacturing enterprise, which they moved to an abandoned school building in Dodgington, Connecticut. Over the next four years they made a few thousand sets but lost money. The game caught on in a modest way in the New York summer resorts, and then in 1952 a Macy’s executive discovered Scrabble and stocked it at the department store. Thereafter, sales of the game boomed, to the extent that sets had to be rationed to stores nationally. Life magazine reported in 1953 that “there are perhaps 10 million players,” and by 1954 a million games had sold. The standard set cost $3, and deluxe sets with white plastic tiles sold for $10.

In 1954 the Brunots licensed Selchow and Righter Company to produce, distribute, and market Scrabble in the United States and Canada. Selchow and Righter bought the trademark in 1972. COLECO Industries bought Selchow and Righter in 1986, and Hasbro, owner of Milton Bradley Company, purchased Scrabble in 1989. Outside the United States and Canada, J. W. Spear and Sons, a Mattel subsidiary, owns the trademark.

Butts confessed that he was not a good speller and that his wife often beat him at the game: “You may have seen some of the advertisements of Scrabble where the word ‘quixotic’ is made. My wife actually made that game. Two hundred and eighty-four points for one word because it went from one triple-the-word score down to the other triple-the-score word which had nine times the score for the word.” In 1954 he bought the family homestead of Daniel Butts, his great-great-grandfather, in Standfordville. He and his wife lived there full-time after 1978.

Butts eventually received about five cents per game: “One-third went to taxes, I gave one-third away and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.” Butts patented several architectural structural systems. He also painted New York City scenes, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought six of them.

Butts was five foot seven, with bespectacled, bright-blue eyes. Professorial in manner and wryly humorous, Butts involved himself in the Standfordville community, voted Republican, collected stamps, and continued to invent board games, including one called Alfred’s Other Game, into the last decade of his life, though none of these achieved commercial success. He lived his last years in the Baptist Home of Brooklyn in Rhinebeck, and died at the Northern Duchess County Hospital. He is buried in the Standfordville family plot.

One-third of American households own a Scrabble game and roughly 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide. Britain’s Queen Mother, President Richard Nixon, and India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru were all avid players. Scrabble has been produced in many languages including Russian, Arabic, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian, and also in magnetic, Braille, and computerized versions. Deluxe editions in 1998 incorporated three improvements that players in 1954 requested: a bag for letters, a turntable, and a timer. At the 1999 International Scrabble Championship in Melbourne, Australia, Canadian Joel Wapnick spelled grit to win by one point, 403–402.

There is no biography of Butts, and after the Scrabble craze peaked in the early 1950s he all but disappeared from the public eye until his death in 1993. Butts’s article “Pre-Planning Low Cost Housing Projects to Meet Economic Requirements,” American Architect (Mar. 1933), indicates his meticulous attention to detail and his analytical skills. Robert Wallace, “A Man Makes a Best-Selling Game—Scrabble—And Achieves His Ambition (Spelled Out Above),” Life (14 Dec. 1953), and “Word Rage,” Look (29 Dec. 1953), cover the development of the game and its rise to stardom. Bob Edwards spoke with Butts sometime in 1984 and replayed the brief interview as a tribute after his death. The transcript is available from National Public Radio. Obituaries are in the New York, Times and Newsday (both 7 Apr. 1993), and U.S. News & World Report and Time (both 19 Apr. 1993). A telephone interview with Eleanor Butts, widow of Alfred Butts’s nephew, Charles A. Butts (30 July 2000), provided personal information about Alfred Butts’s last forty years.

Catherine Rife Small