A peek into the history of the crossword puzzle
Apr 21, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Most nights after walking my dogs and brushing my teeth, I settle into bed with a crossword puzzle. I can thank my grandma for getting me into puzzles and word searches. She always had a word search book handy and I feel close to her as I carry on this tradition. A dear friend of mine recently introduced me to a mystery series centered around a crossword puzzle editor. As I was enjoying episode after episode, it awakened my curiosity. All my life I’ve taken crossword puzzles for granted. I just assumed they’ve always been and always will be. Like a setting sun or a morning chorus of songbirds. But as a student of vintage I know that it’s often the familiar things that have the most interesting histories. So let’s take a peek into the history of the crossword puzzle…
The first thing that surprised me about this beloved pastime is that it’s a relative newcomer. While there have been all manner of word-related games for as long as humans have had written language, the ancestor of the crossword comes from Victorian England. As a young boy, Arthur Wynne (the grandfather of crosswords), played a game called Magic Squares. A children’s game, where kiddos were given a collection of words that they arranged into a square so that letters would read the same across and down. In fact, in the early days, these kinds of letter games were marketed to little ones, as a means to improve their vocabulary. Young Arthur probably didn’t think much of this nursery game during his academic years. At nineteen he came to America, full of hope and the kind of grit you need to make it as a newspaper man in the early 1900s.
Wynne found work at the Pittsburgh Press, but he kept his eye on New York City. Even back then, the big apple was the place to test your mettle. For a young journalist, the lights shone brightest on Park Row in Manhattan. Numbers 53-63 housed the headquarters for the New York World and soon Wynne found himself on the payroll. The publication was led by the firebrand, Joseph Pulitzer. An immigrant, like Wynne, he set about creating a new kind of national newspaper. The World pioneered “yellow” journalism, publishing newspapers with bold headlines and tackling even bolder issues (like corruption or big business). The World’s growing readership couldn’t get enough of the sensational storylines and the entertaining Fun section (which was under Wynne’s purview as editor).
Everything was coming up roses until a fateful Christmas in 1913. The snow was falling over Manhattan and Wynne was tackling a challenge. He and his fellow editors wanted to give their faithful readers something new for the holiday season. What sort of brainteaser could delight his audience, but also raise the bar? As legend would have it, that’s when inspiration struck. Wynne was transported to his childhood in Liverpool, playing Magic Squares with his friends. Perhaps inspired by the snowflakes tickling his office window, he created the first word-cross puzzle in the shape of a diamond. Now before you get concerned that I made a typo, let me explain! When Wynne submitted his creation to the beleaguered illustration department, someone swapped the words in the title. Wynne approved the proofs with the revised title and America’s new pastime was born.
Now, let’s fast-forward our timeline by about a decade. Richard Simon and his partner M. Lincoln Schuster were carving a path in the publishing world. It’s never easy to start a new business, but I imagine being an entrepreneur in the 1920s was beset with all sorts of challenges. During those early years its best to work on building your brand. It might not be the best time to stick out your neck and take a risk. Richard Simon’s aunt, however, did not play by these rules. (She sounds like my kind of gal!) Simon’s dear aunt was absolutely enamored with crossword puzzles and, at her insistence, Simon promised to publish a limited release of a crossword puzzle book. I’m not sure Simon shared her passion so much as he wanted to avoid awkward family dinners, but despite the reluctant motivation he ended up with a blockbuster hit.
Building on this momentum, enthusiasts partnered with Simon & Schuster to form the Amateur Cross Word Puzzle League of America. The league introduced the standards we now expect when solving a puzzle – things like symmetry or the ratio of black squares. Popularity soared and the crossword puzzle became the “it” hobby of the flapper era. Hit songs were penned, musicals were scored, and even comic strips were drawn all in honor of the crossword craze.
The Brits decried that Americans had lost their heads and librarians were complaining that books were flying off their shelves as frantic puzzlers tried to find the answers. Crossword puzzles were nearly declared a health emergency, but that all changed with the onset of war. Even the New York Times, which had resisted the puzzle fad for decades, finally recognized the power of the crossword puzzle. When the Times hired the eminent Margaret Petherbridge Farrar as their newly minted crossword editor, she summed it up by saying: “I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world. You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”
If Wynne is the grandfather of the crossword puzzle, I would consider Farrar its fairy godmother. So much of her legacy is reflected in the puzzles we solve today. She cut her teeth assisting Wynne. Farrar’s specific job was to address reader complaints on “unsolvable” puzzles. As she tried to finish the puzzles herself, she often found herself feeling like the readers. This experience formed her view on puzzling – she was determined to edit puzzles with such scrutiny as to remove any flaws. This attention to detail is what made her the obvious choice for the Simon & Schuster crossword puzzle book. (Fun fact: she was paid $25 as an advance for creating this now-legendary work.) Farrar’s exacting standards are also the reason a reluctant New York Times proceeded with their first crossword puzzle in 1942.
It’s funny to think that the Times, now seen as the gold standard of the genre, was passionately opposed to crossword puzzles for so long. Apparently all that hoopla about puzzles making people crazed was pretty compelling to the top brass! But thankfully the editors realized that the crossword puzzle had become a lifeline for a frightened America. The level of conflict WWII created was on an unprecedented scale. The violence, destruction, and terror invaded people’s lives at every turn. But during the dark nights, a tired America would escape to their crossword puzzles. As Farrar herself said, troubles melted away in the midst of a puzzle. Tell me dear reader, what pastimes do you turn to when you need a break from reality? If you haven’t given crosswords a try, I encourage you to do so today. And for the reader who is already a committed puzzler, check out Wynne’s original puzzle here and give it a go…