than 50 million Americans do crossword puzzles. At least one crossword
appears in almost every American newspaper. For something so simple
and ubiquitous, you might think its been around since ancient
times, but in fact its a 20th-century American invention.
The first puzzle generally accepted to be a crossword appeared
in the Sunday "Fun" section of the old New York World
on December 21, 1913.
"Fun" was a small, 8- to 16-page weekly color supplement
of puzzles, jokes, riddles, and cartoons. On the Sunday before Christmas
in 1913, "Fun" editor Arthur Wynne fashioned a grid of
interlocking words in the shape of a hollow diamond and dubbed the
result a "Word Cross."
The response from readers was immediate and enthusiastic, so Wynne
made the "Word Cross" a regular feature. On its third
week the puzzles compositor made a mistake, accidentally transposing
the two words in the title and the name "Cross-Word"
(later a solid word) has remained ever since.
For a crossword collector like myself, Wynnes first "Word
Cross" is the Holy Grail. As far as I know, I own the only
copy outside of an institution part of an entire run of "Fun"
(containing many varieties of original puzzles by Wynne) from 1911
At some point Wynne left the newspaper to serve in World War I.
"Fun" was discontinued, but crosswords continued in the
Sunday World Magazine, where they developed a following among the
In 1924 two young graduates of Columbia Universitys Journalism
School, Richard Simon and Max Schuster, were starting a publishing
company. According to legend, Simon was having dinner with his Aunt
Wixie, who requested a volume of crossword puzzles for her daughter
her daughter being a fan of the weekly challenges in the
Discovering that no such volume existed, they commissioned the
Worlds puzzle editors (a trio with the impressive names Prosper
Buranelli, F. Gregory Hartswick, and Margaret Petherbridge) to edit
such a book from a drawer full of unpublished manuscripts. The Cross
Word Puzzle Book, released in April, was the first crossword book
in the world, and the first book of any sort from the fledgling
firm of Simon and Schuster. As a promotional gimmick, the book had
a loop attached on the back cover with a Venus pencil inside it.
Sales took off immediately. The first printing of 3,600 copies
sold out in a matter of weeks. A second printing did likewise. Then
numerous printings of ever-increasing numbers followed. Two more
volumes were rushed into print, and other publishers followed with
their own. By the end of the year the Cross Word Puzzle Books ranked
#1, #2, and #3 on the national nonfiction bestseller list, with
400,000 copies in print. Altogether, six of the top 10 volumes on
the list were crosswords.
The success of the crossword books launched a nationwide craze,
even more furious than the hula hoop, pet rocks and Beanie Babies.
Within a short time nearly every newspaper began publishing a
daily crossword, sometimes offering thousands of dollars for solutions.
Crossword dresses and jewelry sold briskly. Songs like Cross Word
Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papas Gonna Figure You Out) could
be heard on the radio. The B&O Railroad installed unabridged
dictionaries in its trains for the convenience of its crossword-solving
passengers. On Broadway Elsie Janis starred in the revue Puzzles
of 1925 in which one scene was set in a mock crossword sanitarium.
years 1924-25 were a bonanza for the types of crossword ephemera
I collect. Included are the first two crossword puzzle magazines,
Fad, and the aptly titled Cross Word Puzzle Magazine.
The New York Herald Tribune hosted several crossword championships,
from which programs and puzzles survive. Goodrich Tires, Battleship
Coffee, Rumford Baking Powder, and other advertisers put out booklets
of prize crosswords. McLoughlin Brothers published a crossword puzzle
game for competitive play at parties.
Judge humor magazine devoted an entire issue, November 15, 1924,
to crossword cartoons and humor. It was such a success that two
more "Crossword Numbers" were published in early 1925.
Raphael Tuck produced two series of colorful and funny crossword
postcards. The Duncan Sisters sang Cross Word Puzzle Blues. I have
both the record and the sheet music.
And, most unusual, I have two crossword quilts from 1925. One
of them was an entry to a contest in the Chicago Tribune, in which
the solver was supposed to submit answers to 48 crossword puzzles,
one for each state in the union. All 48 of the contestants
solutions are embroidered into the quilt, letter by letter, and
the contestants filled-in entry form is pinned to the edge.
Unlike other fads of the 20s, like raccoon coats and flagpole
sitting, crossword puzzles had staying power. After the furor abated,
some newspapers tried to drop the feature, but complaints were so
numerous that the puzzles were quickly reinstated.
Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster continued publication of its crossword
books at the rate of two or more volumes a year a series
that continues today with volume #220 and counting, making it the
largest commercial book series of any kind ever published. I have
all but 11 volumes in the series.
Other notable milestones were the founding of Dell Crossword Puzzles,
in October 1931, the longest-running crossword magazine in America
(I have over two-thirds of the issues); and the start of the famous
New York Times crossword in its Sunday magazine on February 15,
Of special interest to me are crossword magazines published before
1970, of which I have literally thousands. I also collect crossword-related
advertisements and articles (numerous), photos (not too many of
these yet), and vanity license plates (just two so far).
most unusual item in my collection is Williams Crossword pinball
game, manufactured in 1959, which I keep in the basement of my house,
still in perfect working order. It is always a hit with guests at
The obvious question to any collector is "Why?" For
me the old crosswords themselves are of historical interest only.
Any crossword published before 1975 is probably too dry, bland,
and out-of-date to engage solvers today. But I treasure the history.
Its valuable to me to see how crosswords developed into their
modern form. Somebody needs to preserve the past before it's lost.
Also, I enjoy the historical items as artifacts, which someday I
will show in a large book on the subject.
Finally, as a general matter, I appreciate how collecting crosswords
leads rewardingly into so many areas of life, culture, and history,
just as good crosswords themselves do.