HistoryGeneral

A brief history of crossword puzzles

Seven letter word for hobby, starts with “P…”

Crossword puzzles have been around for a century. Newspaper publications were instrumental in their spread, and the decline of print publications makes their future uncertain. For passionate puzzlers, there are always apps to get your cross-word fix, but their history stretches far back from the incandescent screen of your smart phone.

Etched in stone

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There is some debate surrounding the very first crossword puzzle. However, in one form or another, the earliest crossword puzzles were derived from word squares, such as follows:

H             E              A             R             T
E              M            B             E              R
A             B             U             S              E
R             E              S              I               N
T              R             E              N             D

The oldest known example of a word square is the Sator Square, an ancient Latin word square that dates all the way back to the city of Pompeii. Inscriptions of the Sator Square were found in the ruins of the city after it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Puzzle variants of word squares started appearing in English throughout the earlier half of the 19th century.

Pioneers

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Puzzles that resembled crosswords started appearing around the later part of the 19th century in Europe and America. However, Arthur Wynne of Liverpool, England, is credited with creating the first crossword puzzle, for the New York World newspaper in 1913 for the Christmas edition. Wynne called his puzzle a Word-Cross, but the press made a typo that changed history when they titled it the Cross-Word. The puzzles were difficult to print with the old presses and frequently contained typographical errors. Because of this, the editors decided to drop the puzzles shortly after their first release. However, they underestimated their popularity with the readership who wrote in with outrage that puzzles had been removed. And so, the crossword lived on with New York World.

Across the sea

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The popularity of the puzzles started to spread over the course of the next few years. By 1917, crosswords had become a regular feature of the Pittsburgh Press and Boston Globe. The turning point came in 1924 when Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster purchased the rights to their favorite crosswords from New York World and put their money together to print The Cross Word Puzzle Book. The puzzles had a passionate following at this point, and by the end of the year, 300,000 copies of the book had sold.

Making waves

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Crossword puzzles were more than a way to brush up on your vocabulary. They were a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Dictionary sales soared; black and white checker print became fashionable; and, in 1925, they inspired a Broadway show (Games of 1925) and a hit song (“Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me”). Entire swaths of the nation were fully engrossed in the puzzles, so much so that in 1924, a Chicago woman sued for divorce over her husband’s choice to do crosswords rather than work. The judge ordered the world’s first gaming addict to limit himself to three puzzles a day.

The times

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As crosswords continued their run throughout U.S. publications, they began to stagnate in difficulty and creativity. Obvious hints for common words were prevalent across most publications, and skilled puzzlers were becoming bored without challenge. Throughout all of this, the New York Times had refused to print the puzzles as it considered them below its journalistic standards. They retained their stance until World War II.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the editorial staff at the Times agreed that the American public needed some form of escape from the weight of the war. They hired Margaret Petherbridge Farrar of Simon & Schuster to become their crossword editor and launched their own crossword section. It distinguished itself with alliterations and puns in its puzzles in place of bland hints, and it reinvigorated America’s fascination with the pastime.