I blame it all on that rat bastard Arthur Wynne. And the old New York World which has long since gone on to the oblivion it deserves for inflicting it on the American public. Wynne, a Limey journalist with too much time on his hands, called it Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle. Although the first one, printed in the World on December 21, 1913 was in the shape of a diamond, the time waster had all of the elements of the puzzles which torture and consume us to this day—numbered clues for words arranged horizontally and vertical. Not long after the first one was printed an inalert typographer misspelled the heading as cross-word. The designation, minus the hyphen stuck.
There had been simple word/spelling games similar to the word-cross in children’s magazines since the mid-19th Century. They were simple word squares in which letters spelled out the same words horizontally and vertically. Popular in England, a variety called Double Diamond Puzzles were featured in the America St. Nicholas Magazine since 1873.
But this new wrinkle was more sophisticated and aimed at adults. They spread slowly at first, like toenail fungus. The Boston Globe added a daily puzzle in 1917 and slowly so did other papers, the minor alarm of those who are always alarmed by sinful time wasting and innovation of any kind. Protestant preachers, suspicious of any activity which might bring amusement issued dire warnings. The New York Times—which would be the longest hold out among American dailies before plunging in and claiming for itself with Timesian smugness superiority for its eventually hard to solve puzzles—fretted that library resources were being taxed and serious scholarship disrupted as puzzle fanatics claimed the dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases to ferret out answers to arcane clues.
But it took publisher Simon and Schuster to set off a full blown, only-in-America craze ten years later when in 1924 it published an “odd looking book with a pencil attached” containing a collection of crossword puzzles. Half a million copies flew off of the shelves in the first few months. The success of the first book, which the publisher would follow with many others, quickly made the small company one of the leaders in the industry. Soon it was swallowing distinguished old houses and issuing “serious” books for respectability all the while raking in millions from their puzzle books.
Crosswords were soon one of the fads of the Roaring Twenties along with bathtub gin, short skirts and rolled down stockings, jazz, ma-john, and jig saw puzzles.
Unlike the other fads it was legal, cheap, portable, did not require furniture or partners. In the days when home entertainment was limited to reading, needle-point, playing a handful of gramophone records over and over, or trying to pull in a radio station on a crystal set a crossword puzzle could occupy an evening without having to speak with your spouse other than to ask “what’s a three letter word for a Tibetan ox?”
Even better, the ones published in the newspapers could be neatly folded and worked on subway and bus commutes, at noon hour lunch counters, or to idle the time away, or in the secluded privacy of the commode.
In big cities like New York and Chicago, fanatics would buy copies of all of the daily papers just for the different crossword puzzles in each, boosting circulation nicely and putting money into the pockets of fat cat publishers.
Despite the expectation that the fad would fizzle at any time, the popularity of crosswords continued. In fact in the Depression era the inexpensive pass time was treasured by those who had too much time on their hands and not enough treasure.
Crosswords were moral boosters in World War II, often salted with patriotism, anti-Axis vitriol, and even promotions for scrap drives and war bonds. Special paper covered crossword collections were printed to fit in the pockets of the troops—and the books became so popular that after the war publishers like Dell continued to come out with dozens of similar crossword magazines at different skill levels.
There was even a famous moment of cloak and dagger excitement when Allied intelligence officers were alarmed to note that over a period of weeks in 1944 the words Utah and Omaha as well as mulberry—the code name for the floating docks key to getting tons of supplies ashore on D-Day—appeared in the London Daily Telegraph. When the words overlord and Neptune appeared on June 2, they were convinced the puzzle was being used to send the most sensitive secrets to Nazi agents. The puzzles were the side work of school teacher Leonard Dawe who was eventually cleared. Much later a student of Dawe claimed that he suggested some of the words after hearing them bandied about by soldiers in Army camps.
Today crossword puzzles remain popular. Indeed desperate newspaper publishers recognize that they are one of the few reasons many people continue to buy endangered print editions. Others have adapted to doing the puzzles on line.
So why you, ask, should I be complaining about all of this? Because I am an addict. I must do at least the two puzzles run every day in the Northwest Herald—the relatively simple UPS puzzle and the more challenging one from the New York Times, plus the little Jumble. I pointedly ignore that spawn of Satin Sudoku. I do the puzzles on my bus ride to and from Woodstock and in any idle moment in the day, like when my computer is remotely taken over to transfer report from our Chicago office. In the dead of winter when the Pace Bus is black as pitch, I struggle to juggle my cellphone, which I use as a light, the paper, and my pen while trying to work the damn thing on the bone jarring ride.
If I have not completed them during the day, I sometimes fall asleep in my chair with the paper in my lap and pen in hand. And yes, I am one of those annoying people who always works in pen. Sometimes makes for a damn messy puzzle. I will finish the puzzles when I get up in the middle of the night to pee.
At least most of the time I finish them. I never have much trouble with the UPS puzzles. But the Times puzzles get increasingly difficult over the week and over the month. Friday puzzles are especially difficult and they sometime lick me, although I go down bruised and bleeding. To tell the truth, I have less trouble with the legendarily tricky Sunday Times puzzle. I do those on weekend nights when it gets slow at the second job at the gas station. I also work the extra puzzles in the Chicago Tribune, or try to.
In case I run out of puzzles there is a short stack of cheap puzzle magazines by my chair—perfect for long bathroom contemplation.
I admit it. I get cranky if I lose the paper, or worse, someone tries to solve MY PUZZLE. And I get depressed when I fail. Yet there is no one to cheer my daily triumphs—they are all unappreciated by the world.
The time I waste on crosswords would be better used to ferment the revolution or two write the Great American novel. But I’m hooked. It won’t happen. And it’s all Arthur Wynne’s fault.