1924 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On April 10 the world’s first book of crossword puzzles appeared in stores around the country. Within days, sometimes hours, it disappeared, as ravenous fans snapped up any copies they could find and the publishers scrambled to print more. The Cross Word Puzzle Book did not introduce such puzzles to America; they had been a popular Sunday feature in the New York World since that paper printed the first modern crossword in December 1913. But by making a batch of fifty puzzles conveniently available in book form, with no need to wait a week for the next one, the Plaza Publishing Company had unexpectedly created a fad of monstrous proportions. Answers were not included in the book (they could be obtained by mail), so obsessive puzzlers besieged librarians, professors, and experts of all kinds to ask for the names of Roman emperors, Albanian rivers, and tropical beasts. Among industry insiders, however, the most frequent question was: What on earth is the Plaza Publishing Company?

Plaza turned out to be a cover name for Simon & Schuster, which had just opened its doors in January and did not want to be known as a novelty house. The proprietors learned to live with it after they sold forty thousand puzzle books, complete with pencil and eraser, in three months and almost half a million within a year. By December the fad had become a full-blown craze. The Pennsylvania Railroad printed puzzles on the back of its menus and provided a dictionary and thesaurus for stumped passengers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an official announcement that the ancient Roman goddess of fertility was Ops. Archeologists found something resembling a crossword puzzle on a Cretan stone disk dating from 2000 B.C. , while an antiquarian said that the ancient Hindus and Chinese had enjoyed amusements of similar nature. Curmudgeons grumbled at the puzzles’ exaltation of trivia, though some did at least give them credit for getting rid of mahjong.

Pittsburgh, for some reason, proved a hotbed of puzzle mania. The pastor of that city’s Knoxville Baptist Church made his congregation solve a biblical crossword to reveal the text for his sermon. It turned out to be an innocuous verse from Proverbs; the minister had missed his chance to preach on Jezebel, the world’s first crossword puzzler (“She wrote in the letters”—1 Kings 21:9). Soon afterward the more upright rector of the Smithfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church called solving crosswords “the mark of a childish mentality.” That same day, however, a mob of frustrated puzzle fans descended on Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to ask its paleontologists what bird, presumably ancient, had a sevenletter name and belonged to “the sub-order of eleutherodactyli oscines.” (The answer: sparrow.) And two puzzle-solving prisoners in a Pittsburgh jail came to blows over whether “a place of punishment” should be cell or the same word with the first letter changed.

As time passed, crossword puzzles lost their taint of frivolity and were adopted by respectable publications. The last major holdout was The New York Times , which began printing a Sunday puzzle in 1942 and a daily puzzle in 1950—nontrivial concessions for a paper that to this day disdains to print comic strips. Even American Heritage ran a crossword puzzle for a few years in the 1970s before running up against subscribers’ reluctance to write in what was then still a hardcover publication (or, should they fail to finish, have their ineptitude preserved for generations to come, because no one ever threw out old issues). The books remain steady sellers for Simon & Schuster to this day, making crosswords a very rare survivor of the oblivion that has long since engulfed marathon dancing, flagpole sitting, Prohibition, and other 1920s enthusiasms.