From Parcheesi to the Poorhouse: The Selchow & Righter Story

In the 1870s, Selchow & Righter was one of the top wholesalers of board games in the United States (along with Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley). With their 1874 purchase of the trademark to Parcheesi, an invention of toy-and-game store owner Alfred Swift, they established themselves as a leader in the brand-new world of board games.

Things remained relatively quiet for the company to which Elisha G. Selchow (pronounced "SELL-shau," rhymes with "cow") and John Righter had given their names until 1927, when S&R dropped out of wholesale and began producing Parcheesi full-time. Selchow did eventually branch out into more in-house games in the 1920s, removing a few of their eggs from the Parcheesi basket, but by and large drew their revenues from the Parcheesi brand. Selchow conducted no marketing and did not pressure Parcheesi into the hands of retailers.

Things might have remained this way forever, had not a man named Lester Twitchell paid a visit to Marion Stringer, who worked for Selchow's Toy Manufacturers Association office, in 1949. Twitchell and his friend James Brunot had recently acquired the rights to a game called Scrabble from its inventor, Alfred Butts, and he believed that Selchow might have an interest in producing the game. Stringer was at first nonplussed: she thought it to be "not very attractive in appearance, with its nondescript playing board, crude racks, and heavy cardboard lettered square pieces." Upon playing the game, however, Stringer "thought it had some merit," but believed that "at that time word games were out."

Flash forward to 1950, when Twitchell and Brunot approached Harriet Righter, then-president of Selchow & Righter, and again presented their Scrabble game. Righter agreed to produce the boards for the two men, and they left satisfied. For good reason, too: the number of Scrabble games sold jumped from 2,251 in 1949 to over 37,000 in 1952.

Selchow, meanwhile, was bewildered as to why the partners required so many boards from them: Scrabble was being sold virtually entirely by word-of-mouth, and many Selchow executives weren't even aware that the game existed, much less that their company was producing the boards. Eventually, though, Selchow figured out what the deal was, as it were, and sent a factory manager to inspect Brunot's Scrabble plant.

Brunot's Scrabble plant was, in fact, a rundown one-room schoolhouse in rural Connecticut. There, Brunot, and his wife Helen, admitted that they could no longer meet the overwhelming tide of demand for their game. Brunot agreed to license the manufacturing and marketing rights to Scrabble to Selchow in the last quarter of 1952.

Scrabble eventually grew to eclipse Parcheesi as Selchow's centerpiece. Despite the throngs of customers who demanded the game, Selchow did not open a new plant until 1955, and allowed the game's existing popularity to serve as advertising, eschewing the flashy television advertising that was so popular in the 1960s. One modern-day toy-industry exec describes Selchow as being "not marketers. They were manufacturers with a sales network." Nonetheless, Selchow remained a forerunner in the toy and game industry throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

So how did the formerly number-three game producer in the country find itself filing for Chapter 11? The answer is two innocent-seeming words: Trivial Pursuit. Dick Selchow, who was named president of Selchow & Righter in 1977, acquired rights to Trivial Pursuit from its two Canadian inventors in 1983. In the second half of that year, Selchow sold 1.5 million Trivial Pursuit games, increasing threefold the company's previous revenues.

However, the demand never stopped rising. In February 1984, there was a million-unit back order of Trivial Pursuit. Citywide shipments were sold out in two days; stores kept waiting lists; a thriving black market for the game soon arose in many larger cities. When the back orders reached 11 million in August of that year, it was apparent that Selchow could not keep up with demand. Then, adding insult to injury, the Trivial Pursuit bubble burst, and Selchow was left with unsalable 20 million games.

Dick Selchow, unable to move his previously desirable games and left with no family members willing to succeed him, had no choice but to sell the company. In May 1986, Coleco, the upstart company who had produced the Cabbage Patch Kids, paid Selchow $60 million for the company, assuring Selchow that the old management and employees would be retained. Seven months later, Coleco shut down and sold both Selchow factories.

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The Selchow & Righter story is a classic one of death by success: the 119-year-old family-owned business simply could not keep up with demand. Although Selchow did eventually produce some advertising—print ads in the New York Times and other mainstream publications for Scrabble, for example—for its products, this proved to be a solution to the exact wrong problem: the company created too much demand, rather than suffering from too little.

Selchow left one lasting mark on the gaming world, aside from the three games it brought to superstardom: Scrabble Crossword Game Players Inc. (now known as the National Scrabble Association), which serves as a bridge between the corporate owners of Scrabble and those who play the game competitively. The oversight which Selchow gave to the tournament scene and their competitors is evident to this day: the 2002 National Scrabble Championship in San Diego, an event overseen by the NSA, attracted over 700 players, the highest turnout ever.

Sources :
Fatsis, Stefan. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
National Scrabble Association. "About the National SCRABBLE© Association." (September 28, 2002).
Petrik, Paula. "The House that Parcheesi Built: Selchow & Righter Company." Business History Review Autumn 1986.