Sarah Mannix's Summer Scrabble Memories
Date: Fri 07-Aug-1998
Sarah Mannix's Summer Scrabble Memories
BY KAAREN VALENTA
One day this summer as Sarah Mannix was supervising the removal of decades of accumulated possessions from the barn behind her home on South Main Street, she found a wooden box filled with Scrabble tiles.
Memories immediately came flooding back of the summers she spent 50 years ago cutting the small squares for the first manufactured sets of the popular board game. But while everyone is familiar with the small plastic tiles imprinted with letters of the alphabet that make up today's version of the game, the ones in Mrs Mannix's barn were different. They were strips of wood, each bearing ten letters, some with point values printed next to them.
Sarah Mannix got involved with the production of Scrabble because she had a wood shop where she made toys in the years following World War II.
"I had a line of wooden toys that I sold to FAO Schwartz and Sloan's in New York City and at Dorothy Hull's gift shop on Main Street across from town hall," she said. "I used to make them during the summer when I wasn't driving the school bus. I made a rocking horse, a child's desk, a few orders at a time. I made pull toys -- an elephant and a horse, a circus train -- maybe get an order for a gross at a time, not enough to hire anyone or get more machines."
Around 1948 she was approached by James T. Brunot to cut the wooden tiles for the board game he was developing.
"Mr Brunot was a very enterprising man," Mrs Mannix said. "He put in hours and hours of work to develop this game."
According to Town Historian Daniel Cruson, who has researched and written the story of James T. Brunot and the development of Scrabble for an upcoming issue of The Rooster's Crow, Mr Brunot was a well-traveled, well-educated man.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago with a doctorate in social science administration, Mr Brunot had worked in the Midwest implementing provisions of the new Social Security Act. When he and his wife moved to New York City, where he worked for the state in the area of social services, they purchased a vacation home in Newtown.
During World War II Mr Brunot was called to Washington, D.C., to serve on the President's War Relief Control Board. That is when the Brunots first became interested in the board game that would eventually become famous as Scrabble.
"People reached out to other things in those days in this country," Mrs Mannix said. "Getting together with friends and playing board games was a popular pastime. The Brunots and their friends the Twitchells used to play every chance they got."
After the war, the Brunots returned to New York City where Mr Brunot had a position as director of the National Association of Community Chests and Councils. But there wasn't enough housing available in the city so they loved to their house in Newtown. It wasn't long before Mr Brunot tired of the commute and began to look for something he could do in Newtown to earn a living, Mr Cruson said.
The solution was Scrabble. Then known as Criss-Cross Words, the game had been invented by an unemployed architect named Arthur Butts, probably in the late 1930s. Early test games made of cardboard had been around for several years when the Brunots were introduced to it in Washington. Arthur Butts was unable to interest Parker Brothers toy company in producing the game, so he agreed to sell his rights to Mr Brunot.
"Mr Brunot and his friends changed the name because they wanted to apply for a patent," Mrs Mannix said. "They also changed the rules and developed new ones. Then they had to find a way to produce it. Mr Brunot had to consider the economics and the availability of the materials. We didn't get over the war quickly -- things were in short supply. It was even hard to get pasteboard boxes made after the war."
James T. Brunot had become involved in Democratic politics in town -- he would serve as a selectman in 1949 -- and became acquainted with Sarah Mannix and her husband, Bill.
"Mr Brunot came to me and asked if I could cut the letters for the game," she said. "It turned out to be a lot more complicated than we expected."
The entrepreneurs first used common fir plywood, but it had the disadvantage of peeling apart in layers if it got wet. Later Mr Brunot saw an ad in The New York Times for odds and ends of leftover solid birch that was a quarter-inch thick. It was in blocks and Mr Brunot had the letters silk-screened on to use for his deluxe edition.
"The problem started when you cut them with the saw," Mrs Mannix said. "When you made the long cut, then made the cross cut, it turned out that the letter wouldn't necessarily be in the center of the square."
At the time, Mrs Mannix also was working in the Watkins Machine Shop on Church Hill Road in Sandy Hook. "Mr Watkins loved a puzzle. He made a jig for my saw -- to cut in each direction -- which helped a lot," she said. "I think I have one of the best collections of circular saws of anybody because of Scrabble. Every morning I would put two saw blades in the mail to send away to be sharpened, and would pick up two from the mail."
To smooth the rough edges of the letter tiles without hand-sanding, Mr Brunot made a tumbler from a barrel filled with sand. That problem solved, he then found a sawmill in New Jersey that manufactured molding to use for the game's letter racks.
Making The Racks
"The truck driver got directions from Mr Brunot but we weren't home when he came to deliver so he just tipped the trailer up and dumped it in a pile in our driveway -- it looked like a pile of hay," Mrs Mannix said. "When we got home, it looked like it might snow or rain so we had to act fast. All we could do was open the barn door and throw it in. It seemed like it was there for years."
The wood molding was in pieces that ranged from 3 to 16-feet long. "It was `seconds' but it worked just fine," Mrs Mannix said. "I ended up just doing the holders." Whenever she had time, she would cut the molding up, taking out the knots and blemishes, and group the strips four to a package for each game.
Years later she and her husband would use the leftover molding when they redecorated several rooms in their house.
Mr Brunot realized that he needed someplace besides his basement to finish and assemble the games so he arranged to use the old Flat Swamp Schoolhouse on Route 302. "He had barrels all around, and a couple of work benches," Mrs Mannix said. "He did a lot of the work himself, with a friend."
The first years were lean, Mr Cruson said, and eventually the other investors dropped out. By then Sarah Mannix wasn't working fulltime for Brunot during the summer but would pitch in when big orders came in.
The big break came in 1952 when an order arrived from Macy's Department Store in New York City. Ultimately Macy's decided to promote the game during the Christmas season. Needing more production space, Mr Brunot moved operations to a building on the corner of Plumtrees Road and Old Hawleyville Road that now houses a nursery school. He also rented offices in the newly constructed Wheeler Shopping Center (now generally known as Queen Street Shopping Center) for the headquarters of his Production and Marketing Company.
Soon he approached the Selchow-Righter Company and contracted with them to produce the standard edition of Scrabble but he kept the production of the
deluxe wooden tile edition and all foreign language versions.
A Big Success
The game became a big seller.
"It was an educational game -- parents would teach their children," Mrs Mannix explained. Both she and Dan Cruson agree that the Brunots probably made a lot of money from Scrabble. In 1953 the they bought a 75-acre farm on Taunton Hill Road where Mrs Brunot hired a shepherd to tend the prize-winning sheep that she began to breed.
"The Brunots were both absolutely the nicest people," Mrs Mannix said. "She was in the garden club and won awards for her flower arrangements. I took lessons from her. She was a brilliant woman, self-taught and friendly."
In 1970 the Brunots donated 66 acres of their land to the Newtown Forest Association and Mr Brunot signed a contract to turn over the remainder of his company to Selchow-Righter within the next seven years. In 1977, five years after the death of his wife, he closed the office and retired, spending a lot of his time in Hilton Head, N.C. He died seven years later at the 30-30 Park Avenue Health Care Center in Bridgeport. Alfred Butts died five years ago at the age of 93 in Stockton, N.Y.
Despite the deaths of the inventor and the developer of Scrabble, the game continues as one of the most popular board games in America.
"I know people who still are possessed by it," Mrs Mannix said. "I never got excited about winning a game of Scrabble. But I would have gotten excited about finding a way to have the squares turn out right."