The modernity of the crossword puzzle

May 28, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Word games have been with us since the advent of words themselves, but one of the most popular of all word games, the crossword puzzle, is a relatively recent invention. We have only had crossword puzzles for about 100 years.

We owe the modern crossword puzzle to a man named Arthur Wynne, who was an editor at the New York World and found himself in charge of the “fun” edition of the newspaper at Christmastime in 1913.

Wynne thought that the World readers could do with a new challenge, so he designed a diamond-shaped grid with an empty center and a list of clues that would help readers decide which words were appropriate for the squares. (See illustration.)

The clues themselves were fun, sometimes requiring readers to know obscure facts and other times leading readers in the opposite direction of what the clue actually meant.

Wynne had decided that this puzzle would be one of a kind. What he did not anticipate was its popularity with readers. Readers demanded more, and the newspaper began to run a weekly crossword puzzle. Other newspapers followed suit, so that by the 1920s crossword puzzles were a regular feature in many newspapers across the country.

In 1924, Richard Simon and Lincoln Schuster had begun a publishing venture, and Schuster’s aunt, who loved crosswords, had asked him to publish a book of crossword puzzles. Their first such book did not carry the name of the publishers, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine:

. . . . The first crossword puzzle book—an untested and decidedly nonliterary format—worried the firm so much that the firm’s name did not appear on the book, which had a small printing of 3,600 copies.

The publisher needn’t have been concerned; the book was an immediate success. The first run sold out quickly and the company ran additional printings. The book eventually sold more than 100,000 copies, perhaps spurred on by groups like the Amateur Cross Word Puzzle League of America, itself a creation of marketing-savvy Simon & Schuster.

Crossword puzzles developed specific rules and shapes, and they spread themselves around the world and into other languages. Crossword puzzle designers have made them large and elaborate as well as small and quick.

Like many other inventors, Arthur Wynne had no idea about what he was starting when he sat at his desk on that cold winter day in 1913.

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