“Cross Word Puzzle Mama, You Puzzle Me,” courtesy of Mary Mallory.
The 1920s were a decade of fads. Everything from mah jongg, radio, bridge, golf, solitaire and dance steps exploded into popularity before being replaced by the next big thing. Though around for about a decade, crossword puzzles shot to fame when Simon and Schuster introduced a crossword puzzle book in 1924.
Various forms of puzzles existed for centuries before the crossword puzzle. Frances Hansen writes in “The Crossword Obsession” that Greeks inscribed word squares into statues in 6th century B. C. Acrostics, anagrams and riddles puzzled people for decades as well, a form of study for learning vocabulary, word origins and the like. Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, notes that word square puzzles became popular in the 1870s, though existing since 1859. In 1896, the San Francisco Call ran a regular section called “cross-word puzzle,” similar to Mensa mind puzzles and quizzes today.
“Cross Words Between Sweetie and Me,” courtesy of Mary Mallory.
The Nov. 1, 1896, Call ran a series of 14 puzzles that readers submitted and others could answer, such as:
“Name of a play written by a great poet
Mch d bt Nthg”
Sob not A city of the United States
Iblner A city of Europe
Olunohul Capital of an island.”
What we know as the crossword puzzle first appeared in New York’s Sunday World “Fun” section on Dec. 21, 1913, as drawn by the section’s editor, Arthur Wynne. He rearranged a word square into one running both horizontally and vertically with numbers identifying positions. Wynne labeled it “Word Cross,” though the paper changed it to “Cross Word” the next month. Readers began complaining if it didn’t run every week, and eventually it was moved to the World’s Sunday Magazine, where Margaret Petherbridge oversaw its printing each week. The newspaper never copyrighted the puzzle, and gradually others began creating and publishing ones as well.
In February 1922, the Re-ly-on Bottler: A Magazine of Ideas and Ideals, published for bottling companies, organized its own cross-word puzzle contest. They introduced it by noting the craze that “has spread an epidemic of mental gymnastics all over the country.” This article announced a cross-word puzzle competition in March, open to bottlers, employees and their families, in which contestants would enter their puzzle solution along with a letter on the subject, “How I Increased My Business During the Winter Months.” Monetary prizes would be awarded to the top three winners. The article noted that “the cross-word puzzle is a ‘…simple but interesting form of mental exercise based on one’s vocabulary.’ ”
Ambitious young publishers Dick Simon and Max Schuster published the first book, “The Cross Word Puzzle Book: An Anthology of Fifty Cross Word Puzzles Selected of the Best of the 1000s That Have Been Submitted to the New York World,” on April 10, 1924, edited by Prosper Buranelli, F. Gregory Hartswick, and Petherbridge. They hoped to break even. Books quickly sold out, and multiple reprints ensued. By Aug. 31, 1924, they were advertising their second book in the Los Angeles Times, proclaiming “thrillers ideal for parties, in-dispensable for weekends and vacations… .”
The June 8, 1924, Los Angeles Times ran its first story on the craze, “The Word Hunters and How They Work,” noting an upcoming Cross Word Convention at the Ambassador Hotel. The Times would run its first cross-word puzzle contest in December 1924, before introducing a daily puzzle in spring 1925.
By the middle of December, the New York Public Library limited borrowers of dictionaries to five minutes each of reading time, as vastly more people attempted to employ them in solving puzzles than the 150 they possessed.
The popular music industry capitalized on the fad in 1924, with Sidney Clare and Willie Raskin writing lyrics to fit composer Jimmie Monaco’s music in “Cross Word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).” The song deals with a man confused over a woman claiming to love him, but seeming to ignore him or flirt with other guys. The patter exclaimed: “Papa’s gonna cross-word you right now, Better get your answers right, Heard you mention “Butcher” that means “Meat,” Who’ya gonna meet tonight?”
The cross-word puzzle craze infected the entertainment industry as well. Variety announcing in its Feb. 18, 1925, issue that it would offer Variety subscriptions as prizes for those who first submitted correct answers to the trade. Radio Age and some fan magazines added puzzles offering cash prizes. The Duncan Sisters sang “The Cross Word Puzzle Blues” on vaudeville, and many performers added jokes or bits to their acts highlighting the craze.
A novelty one-reel short by Century Comedies called “Puzzled by Crosswords” was released in film theaters in late January-early February 1925, which the March 8 issue of Film Daily called average. New comedian Eddie Gordon played a puzzle fanatic with puzzles decorating every inch of space in his house, and like an addict, he grew despondent without one. He employed an “inspiration pill” whenever clues stumped him.
The 1925 song, “Cross-Words Between Sweetie and Me,” deals with a man who finds his girlfriend and her family obsessed with cross-word puzzles, with part of the first chorus exclaiming, “Cross Words have made me blue as can be, Brought Cross Words between my Sweetie and me, She sits puzz ‘ling don’t seem to care, Whether I’m near her or taking the air, “I’m jealous, how can I win sympathy, I’m hoping she’ll soon need L-O-V-E, Kind words are lost words, since she found those Cross-Words, that came between Sweetie and me.” Even then, people were addicted to games and puzzles.
Popular Science Monthly mused in its March 1925 issue, “So the cross-word puzzle craze has swept across the United States like a devastating fire, consuming all in its path,” as it wondered what made them so popular besides gaining knowledge. With education levels at some of their highest ever, costs to participate virtually nothing, and with virtually no rules or physical dexterity, solving puzzles gave people social distinction, pleasure, amusement, curiosity, and a easy way to exhibit their competitive streak. They noted “anyone who possesses the working vocabulary of the average newspaper reader” can participate.
By 1926, the roaring whoosh of crossword puzzle popularity settled into a steady flame, where it has remained pretty steadily through today. Now puzzles can be solved not only in magazines and newspapers, but online and on handheld devices. As long as readers care about vocabulary and knowledge, crossword puzzles will remain popular.