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Crosswords: 100 years of word play

Updated on October 24, 2013
Image of a crossword puzzle created by TDowling
Image of a crossword puzzle created by TDowling | Source

The crossword puzzle, the world's most popular word game, is celebrating its 100th year. The first crossword appeared in print on Sunday, Dec. 21, 1913 in the defunct New York World.

By the beginning of the 20th century, owner/publisher Joseph Pulitzer had vastly expanded the circulation of the once struggling World.

Pulitzer grew the New York World's readership by employing screaming headlines, sensational news coverage — including crusades against public and private corruption — and expanded entertainment features.

New Yorkers loved his paper. At the end of the 19th century, The World 's circulation exploded to over 600,000 making it the nation's largest circulated newspaper. Pulitzer also made his paper financially viable by expanded its advertising. He was known to battle for circulation with competitors, especially William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. (The yellow journalism wars that developed between the two publishing titans was legendary, but that's another story.)

The World was also an innovative newspaper. It used a lot of illustrations and it was the first paper to launch a color supplement. (It also published The World Almanac, an annual reference book, which takes its name from the paper. It is still operating.)

As the 20th century dawned, the Sunday funnies or comics began appearing in several papers and soon became a weekly family tradition enjoyed by both children and adults. On Sundays, The World published an eight-page “Fun” section, filled with comic strips and puzzles. As part of the paper's innovative tradition, Fun Section Editor Arthur Wynne wanted the Christmas 1913 weekend edition to include something special. So he invented a new word game.

Wynne designed a diamond shape game featuring a grid of horizontal and vertical squares. The puzzle provided numbered clues corresponding to one of the squares. The puzzle solver had to decipher the clues and fill in the letters in a group of squares forming words running both across and down. The physical crisscrossing of words provided the puzzle’s name. Wynne called it “word-cross.”

The first crossword puzzle appeared in 1913 in the New York World newspaper.
The first crossword puzzle appeared in 1913 in the New York World newspaper. | Source

It was instantly popular with pencil posed puzzle people

The word game was an immediate success with pencil posed puzzlers. As its popularity grew its name was changed to the hyphened: "cross- word" and eventually, simply: “crossword.”

Despite its initial success, many people scorned the puzzles. In fact, some World editors felt the crossword was “beneath a sensible man’s consideration.”

Even with this, World readers were so intrigued with the new puzzles, they began sending in crosswords they created. Within a couple of months, Wynne regularly published reader submissions.

The World’s staff negative reaction to crossword puzzles combined with constant typesetting errors prompted the paper to abruptly drop its weekly crossword. Readers expressed such strong outrage about this decision that the puzzle was reinstated after only a one week absence.

For a decade crosswords were exclusively published in the World and Wynne kept making improvements on the format. He developed horizontal and vertical shaped puzzles and added blank black squares to the puzzles. Today, most crossword grids are designed to be rotated 180 degrees and the position of the black and white squares do not change.

In 1924, a new book publisher printed a bound collection of the World’s puzzles and this introduced the crossword to people outside of New York City. The book, which came with a pencil attached, was a big success. It caused a countrywide crossword craze and launched the publishing house of Simon & Schuster.

The crossword craze replaced mahjongg as the most popular American game. There are reports that during this craze, the addictive nature of these new puzzles caused people to lose their jobs and destroy their marriages.

In the 1920s, other newspapers came onboard and began featuring their own crossword puzzles.

Crosswords are originally discredited by the NY Times

It’s hard to believe today that the New York Times, which is known for publishing the pinnacle of the puzzles, at first belittled the crossword and refused to carry it.

“It is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport,” complained a New York Times columnist in 1924. The columnist said people who work on crosswords “get nothing out of it except a primitive sort of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

The Times printed its first crossword puzzle on Sunday, February 15, 1942. The public was told the crossword was added to give readers something to do during World War II blackouts. Times insiders say it was done to appease Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who complained he was tired of having to buy the competing New York Herald Tribune for its crossword.

Margaret Farrer, who co-edited Simon & Schuster’s semiannual collection of crosswords, was named the newspaper’s first crossword editor.

There are apps, clothes, contests and websites that revolve around crosswords

The crossword puzzle has impacted our culture since its birth in 1913:

  • Crosswords now appear in virtually all newspapers, as well as magazines and books.
  • You can find websites filled with crosswords and there are various crossword apps for mobile devices.
  • Crossword's black and white squares have been featured in fashion.
  • Players vie for titles at various crossword competitions throughout the world.

A former president created a New York Times crossword

Today, The Times daily crossword measures 15 squares by 15 squares and the Sunday edition expands to 21 by 21. The Sunday puzzle is designed to be the most difficult. Thursday’s is equally as challenging, but its smaller size makes it easier to solve than Sunday’s version.

The popularity of The Times puzzle increased throughout the years. Soon it became an icon of crosswords, considered the most prestigious of the crossword puzzles in the U.S.

Among The New York Times crossword fans are numerous celebrities, including Norman Mailer, Jon Stewart, Beverly Sills and former President Bill Clinton.

The latter is said to have flawlessly completed The Times crossword (in ink) in a few minutes, while simultaneously arguing with political leaders on the phone. Clinton considers the crossword an analogue for life, New York Magazine reports. He attacks political problems the same way he tackles a puzzle: “You start with what you know, and you just build on it,” he said.

In 2007, after leaving the White House, when he had more time on his hands, Clinton created a Times puzzle. He was given a grid, figured out the solution and wrote the clues. The puzzle, entitled “Twistin' the Oldies," featured puns and plays on words.

Will Shortz, Times' puzzle editor, said he did very little editing of Clinton’s puzzle. Above it he included the following Editor’s Note: "The clues in this puzzle are a little more playful and involve more wordplay than in a typical crossword. You have been warned."

Who are these puzzle players?

About 50 million Americans tackle at least one crossword per week.

While Scrabble and Words with Friends require a vast vocabulary, solving crosswords requires an extensive knowledge of various facts and the ability to figure out some tricky clues.

Although folks in all demographic groups enjoy the challenge of solving these puzzles, twice as many women as men are devoted crossword puzzle players.

Shortz said he resisted editing the puzzle too much. "I wanted it to be Clinton's voice, not my voice,” Shortz told Reuters. "He's got a flair for this. His clues make you laugh out loud."

As was the case with Clinton, Shortz does not write the crosswords himself. The puzzles, created by several hundred contributors following Times’ guidelines, are submitted to Shortz who edits them.

When he gets a new puzzle from a contributor, Shortz immediately checks it for accuracy. "I will hear about it if anything is wrong," he told the Deseret News. Then he looks for clever wordplay. "I like things that tease and joggle the brain," Shortz said. On average the editor revises about 50% of the clues in each puzzle.

But the work on a new crossword puzzle isn't finished yet. Before The Times prints a puzzle it's checked by five test solvers. “No other puzzle in the country undergoes such rigorous testing,” Shortz maintains.

Why do people enjoy solving crossword puzzles?

There are several factors that trigger our crossword puzzle enjoyment. One has to do with the patterns we find in them. Psychologists say our fascination with these puzzles mirrors our attraction to music. We like the patterns and rhythms. They engage our minds.

Then there’s the series of small triumphs crossword puzzlers experience as they figure out each word. They relish the exhilarating feeling each time they scribble the right word in the little boxes. Finally, there’s that concluding crescendo of success. "When you fill in that last square, you have reached perfection,” explained Shortz. “That's a rare and very satisfying feeling." –TDowling

© 2013 Thomas Dowling

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    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 3 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      Great article on the history of the Crossword puzzle! I absolutely love crosswords and I actually have an App so I can work on them with any one of my mobile platforms. They keep your mind constantly going and alert. A study shows that crosswords amongst other games, are also great for the elderly because it is supposed to help them stave off dementia. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Excellent summary. I used to work quite a few crosswords myself to burn away the hours when I was working a security job. It is nice to see that the art form of the word puzzle has not died, it has simply transferred to an electronic format. Great hub!

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      Rose and Mel:

      Thanks the nice words. I never caught the crossword puzzle bug, but have great respect for crossword puzzlers, including my late mother-in-law who used to do the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 3 years ago from California Gold Country

      You did a great job of putting this hub together with a lot of interesting facts. I'm one of those who likes doing crossword puzzles and I can't think of one cross word to say about your article.

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      LOL, Rochelle Frank! Thanks for brightening my day. -TD

    • Tygher41 profile image

      Megan Carroll 3 years ago from Boynton Beach, FL

      Great Hub! I like to say I do crosswords...I try anyway. It's tough using the digital apps on the phone because it's so easy to cheat if you get stuck! I still prefer the pen and paper version, even if it makes me feel dumb after I only get one answer!

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      Hey fellow Floridian, Tygher41:

      Glad you have the [whatever-they-call-it] and attempted to do a crossword puzzle. I don't have the [whatever-they-call-it], so I just write about it. :-)

      -TD

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