Ephemera Offers a Clue to Crossword Origins


February 13, 2013 Ephemera Society

By Will Shortz

Ephemera Society of America member Will Shortz is a lucky man. As the New York Times crossword editor, and puzzlemaster for National Public Radio, he’s in the unusual position of having turned a hobby into his life’s work. He began creating crossword puzzles when he was 9 or 10 years old, selling them professionally when he was 14, and began collect antique puzzle books not long after. The rest is a seven-letter word beginning with "H" and ending with "Y". This article originally appeared in Ephemera News, vol. 19, no. 4, Summer 2001.

More 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 it’s been around since ancient times, but in fact it’s 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 puzzle’s 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, Wynne’s 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 to 1916.

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 literary set.

In 1924 two young graduates of Columbia University’s 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 World.

Discovering that no such volume existed, they commissioned the World’s 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 Papa’s 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.

The 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 contestant’s solutions are embroidered into the quilt, letter by letter, and the contestant’s 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, 1942.

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).

The 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 parties.

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. It’s 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.


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