At the beginning of this year, Wordle exploded. Scores flooded social media, a hundred spinoffs launched every week, and news sites rushed to share daily clues for solvers. But this isn’t the first time a word game has taken the world by storm.
In the early 1900s, a different ‘mania’ gripped the public — crossword mania. Yes, that black-and-white grid that’s seldom finished today, was the central, glamorous hobby for millions in the Anglosphere. This craze manifested in crossword-themed clothing, parties, wedding announcements, aid dictionaries in trains, and even distracted athletes in locker rooms.
1925 cartoon showing a crossword fanatic, who calls his doctor at 2am to solve a clue. Source: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.
But where did it all begin?
The first published (and thus, known) crossword was made by Arthur Wynne, an editor at American newspaper New York World. Wynne ran a Sunday supplement called FUN, and was looking for something to fill the pages for December 21, 1913. Inspired by word puzzles from his native England (Wynne was a migrant from Liverpool), he created and ran a diamond-shaped puzzle in the paper. Wynne called it a ‘word-cross’, with a list of clues for 32 mystery words:
This ‘word-cross’ was meant to be a one-time game, since it was labour-intensive to create and print in 1913. But FUN’s readers were hooked, and demanded a new ‘word-cross’ every weekend — Americans hadn’t seen it before, so it was a fascinating new hobby. The name was later changed to ‘cross-word’ due to a typesetting mistake, and voila: the modern crossword puzzle was born.
As more papers in the US and UK picked it up, the crossword morphed into the criss-cross grid we know today. Things truly exploded in 1924, when the then-fledgling publishing house Simon & Schuster published the first crossword book, which came with an attached pencil. The book was a massive hit, and cemented Simon & Schuster’s place in the industry.
Today, many might know The New York Times as the holy grail for crosswords. But interestingly, the Times refused to carry crosswords for a long time, once even publishing a column calling it a ‘sinful waste of time’. However, when Pearl Harbour happened, the paper changed its mind. It noted that readers needed a source of comfort in a worrying era, where they spent long hours at home. Sounds familiar?
December 21, the day Wynne published his first puzzle, is now celebrated as National Crossword Day. His original grid is solvable even today, showing how a well-made puzzle stays evergreen. It has a few archaic words in there that might stump you, but give it a try anyway. How often do you get to relive something from 1913?
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