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Crossword In History

July 2024
1min read

F. Scott Fitzgerald surverying the ashes of the Jazz Age from the vantage point of 1931, wrote: “By 1927 a wide-spread neurosis began to be evident, faintly signalled, like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of cross-word puzzles.”

Of course, at the time he was writing, the twenties were tarnished for Fitzgerald, but there is no doubt that toward the end of the decade the crossword puzzle was a ubiquitous and obsessive element of American life.

It was born inauspiciously, surrounded by ethnic jokes and doggerel about newlyweds, in the December 21, 1913, issue of Fun magazine, a Sunday supplement to the old New York World . This inaugural puzzle, with the definitions anchored by numbers at both ends, was composed by Arthur Wynne and appears at the right. Those who want to try their hand at it will find the solution on page 104.

The next issue of Fun gave the puzzle more space, and the new feature began to grow in popularity, By the early twenties its staunch group of supporters included F.P.A., Robert Banchley, Emily Post, and Gelett Burgess. In 1923, at the urging of a crossword fiend known to history only by his pen name, “Radical,” the World changed the system of numbering the definitions and the puzzle took on its current form. The next year Simon and Schuster brought out the first crossword-puzzle book in an edition of thirty-six hundred copies. Within three months the book was America’s best seller, and by the end of the year some half million copies were in print. As John Held Jr.’s checkered flapper indicates, the crossword puzzled went on the edge out Coué and mahjong as the premier fad throughout America.

The rage declined during the thirties, but crossword puzzles retain a huge and occasionally fanatical following. For instance, between 1938 and 1949 Robert M. Stilgenbauer of Los Angeles composed the largest crossword puzzle ever published—2,007 clues across, 2,008 down. To date he has distributed 125,000 copies of this monster; among those struggling to solve it Robert Viset of Bayside, New York, has come closest. According to the latest report, he has 93.5 per cent of it completed.

In any event, we are now entering the field and will be featuring a crossword puzzle in each issue. The theme, of course, will be American history—although not all clues will refer to that field—and answers will be given in the following issue.

For those in need of inspiration, here is a soaring passage from F. Gregory Hartswick’s introduction to the first edition of Simon and Schuster’s Cross Word Puzzle Book: “The cross word solver becomes a collector, a connoisseur of words. They lose, to him, their mundane purpose of a suitable medium for the exchange of thoughts, and take on an esoteric significance, akin to the appeal of slip-ware to the collector of pottery or the three-cornered Mauritius to the philatelist. He and Hamlet are one. ’Words, words, words’—except that he has the advantage of the melancholy one. Hamlet’s words ran in decorous file, one after the other; the solver’s twine and interwine, each leading to others, resulting in a harmonious whole unapproached by any except the marterpieces of classic literature.”


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