The ABCs Of Newtown: B Is For Brunot
“The ABCs of Newtown” is a new series that will tie each letter of the alphabet to something in Newtown. This week we continue with a look at the man who turned Scrabble into a household name.
The late Newtown resident James T. Brunot developed Scrabble. He did not invent it. That’s an important distinction, and one that rankled the late Town Historian Dan Cruson for years.
According to the National Scrabble Association — and a December 2008 feature in The Newtown Bee — the word game was the brainchild of Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect who lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Following the Great Depression, in 1930 Butts decided to develop a game “that would involve skills as well as chance,” The Newtown Bee noted 13 years ago. Combining elements of anagrams and classic crossword puzzles into a scored game — something prior word games did not feature — Butts created a game he called Lexico, later known as Criss-Cross Words, but neither version was well-received by mainstream game manufacturers.
Enter Brunot, a Newtown resident and friend of Butts’s, who loved the game.
Brunot was born on July 24, 1902, in Greensboro, Pennsylvania, to Rose (Latta) and James Brunot.
According to his obituary in The Newtown Bee, the family moved when Brunot was a young boy to Hammond, Indiana. He graduated from Mercersburg Academy in 1916. He then attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key.
He graduated from the University of Chicago with “a degree in social work,” according to his obituary in The New York Times, or more specifically “with a Masters in Comparative Religion,” according to The Newtown Bee obituary.
Brunot met his wife, Helen Hardy, and the couple lived for three years in Cleveland, Ohio, during the mid-1930s.
After working for a few years, Brunot returned once more to the university, this time earning a doctorate in Social Science Administration.
He was then engaged by the federal government to serve on the President’s War Relief Control Board during World War II. He worked to place displaced people, and “was in Europe a good deal for two years,” again according to his Newtown Bee obituary.
Brunot and Helen, according to a 1998 story in The Newtown Bee, became interested in Criss-Cross Words after discovering it the nation’s capital.
After the war, and retirement from the Control Board, the former federal official and social worker was appointed director of the New York State Charities Aid. Brunot did that work for a decade, traveling frequently to Albany, N.Y.
Plywood And Molding
By then, the Brunots had moved to a home in Bethel, the first step toward their dream of owning a farm in Connecticut.
Butts’s application for Criss-Cross Words was reportedly rejected, according to connecticuthistory.org, leading to Butts shelving the game.
Brunot, also according to the website, “believed that all the game needed was some slick marketing and a few refinements.”
That was when Brunot and Butts teamed up, simplified the rules and board design, and renamed the game Scrabble. Brunot is credited with the name change, and creating both the premium squares on the board and premium points for some letters. Butts retained patent rights on the game and earned royalties on the sales.
Brunot received the copyright for Scrabble on December 1, 1948, and trademarked Scrabble Brand Crossword Game on December 16, 1948.
Game sets were first put together in the basement of the Brunot home. Up to 18 games were initially manufactured there each day.
Once Brunot realized he needed more space to finish and assemble the games, the Brunots rented the former Flat Swamp district schoolhouse in Dodgingtown. It was there that — with the assistance of friends — Scrabble boards, boxes, and individually stamped letter tiles were put together, according to the NSA.
Among those friends was the late Sarah Mannix, who was approached by Brunot in 1948 because she had a wood shop where she made toys.
When cleaning out her South Main Street barn in 1997, Mannix discovered a box of uncut wooden Scrabble tiles. Brunot, Mannix told The Newtown Bee in 1998, “was a very enterprising man. He put in hours and hours of work to develop this game.”
In speaking with editors Andrea Zimmermann, Daniel Cruson, and Mary Maki for Newtown Remembered: an oral history of the 20th century (published in 2002), Mannix recalled the start of production on the game’s wooden tiles.
“You couldn’t buy materials then, you couldn’t get plywood or that sort of thing. But they saw advertised in the New York paper odds and ends that they were selling to people. They had this birch plywood that was a quarter inch thick advertised, blocks a certain size, beautiful quality. It had been a cut off from something that they were manufacturing and they advertised them in the paper so much a block. So they went down and they bought a godly number of these.”
Something taken for granted now — tiles of equal size — was not initially obvious to the game’s developers.
“Scrabble, if you will remember, has a little value on it, a little number on some of them,” Mannix said. “And think of it, a letter ‘M’ would take up a much bigger space [than an I]. But in order to fit the puzzle and fit the molding to put that on and put them together, they had to all be the same size. So you began to have the problem of being able to put that block up and put that many little squares all the same.”
Once Brunot realized that tiles had to be the same size regardless of the letter being represented, strips of letters were silkscreened, and then given to Mannix, who would cut the strips into individual tiles in her shop.
After that, “they took them and they had barrels with sand in it and Mr Brunot made an axle on them and put a little motor on them and he switched them on and the barrel turned and it took the rough edge off the plywood,” according to Mannix.
The first tile racks were old pieces of molding, purchased by Brunot from a mill on Long Island.
“They brought a trailer truck of molding up and dumped it in my barn,” Mannix recalled for the oral history project. “It was all throw away; there was a knot in them, or a bad space or a discolored place, or something like that. Well, that trailer truck [full] made thousands of Scrabble things,” she said.
Mannix said Brunot “had a tremendous knowledge; he could look at things and see what he thought was wrong.”
Scrabble initially lost money for the Brunots, who had formed a partnership called The Production & Marketing Company when they began manufacturing the game in their home. In 1949, the Brunots made 2,400 Scrabble sets and lost $450.
Brunot’s big break came in 1952, when an order arrived from Macy’s department store in New York City. Once Macy’s decided to promote the game during the Christmas season, Brunot and team needed even more work space, so they moved again, this time to a building on the corner of Plumtrees Road and Old Hawleyville Road.
He also rented offices in the then-newly constructed Wheeler Shopping Center (now Queen Street Shopping Center), which became the headquarters of his production and marketing company.
By early 1953, according to The New York Times, 35 employees working in two shifts could produce as many as 6,000 Scrabble sets a week. Orders soon ran into the hundreds of thousands, however, well outpacing the capacity of the small factory space.
That same year, the Brunots bought a 75-acre farm. That property, according to the NFA Brunot Preserve map notes, was “where Helen could raise Dorset sheep and enjoy the renovated farmhouse at 118 Taunton Hill Rd. James became active in local civic groups, serving as Selectman, enjoying the Horticultural Club, and became a longtime member of the Congregational Church.”
Later that year, Brunot contracted with Selchow-Righter Company to produce the standard edition of Scrabble, but he kept control of the production of the deluxe wooden tile edition and all foreign language versions. By the mid-1950s, also according to his obituary, five million sets of the game had been sold.
Brunot retired in 1977, turning over the remainder of his business to Selchow-Righter, which eventually became part of Milton Bradley.
Scrabble sets are now found in three of every five American homes, according to scrabble.hasbro.com.
‘A Respected Citizen’
James and Helen Brunot donated 66 acres of their farm in 1970 to what Newtown Forest Association has named Brunot Preserve. After Helen’s death in 1972, according to NFA records, “two friends, John Southworth and Aubrey Justis, contributed small parcels.” James Brunot added another eight acres out of his late wife’s estate to the parcel in 1981 when their house was sold.”
The space today, with entrances at 124 Taunton Hill Road in Newtown and 31 Plumtrees Road, measures 76 acres.
Brunot was a Newtown resident until 1981, when he moved to Park Avenue Health Care Center in Bridgeport.
He was 82 years old and living at the health care center when he died on Monday, October 22, 1984. His Newtown Bee obituary noted “he had been a patient with lung trouble for some time.” The Reverend Alastair C. Sellars, pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, conducted the funeral service at the church on October 25.
Brunot is buried in Newtown Village Cemetery.
His hometown newspaper noted that Brunot “had been a respected citizen of Newtown for more than 30 years, holding a number of town offices and taking an active part in the life of the community.”
He had served, the obituary further noted, as trustee and moderator for Newtown Congregational Church; had a lasting interest in The UN Migrant Committee, including representing America and The Toystore Foundation; and was a corporator of Newtown Savings Bank.
It also noted, “Mr Brunot’s years in Newtown were long and fruitful. He leaves many friends who will long remember him.”
Donations in his memory were requested for FISH of Newtown, Inc, a service organization that offered rides to Newtown residents of any age who had no other means of getting to hospital, doctor, and other medical appointments.
Survivors included his sister, Mrs Rose Crumpacker of Colorado; several nieces and nephews, and countless Scrabble enthusiasts.