Arthur Wynne was a writer for the game page of the New York World at the turn of the 19th century. One winter afternoon in 1913, while trying to think up new types of games for the newspaper’s special Christmas edition, he came up with a way to adapt the “word squares” his grandfather had taught him when he was a boy. In a word square, all the words in the square have to read the same horizontally and vertically.
But in the new puzzle Wynne came up with, the “across” words were different from the “down” words. It was more challenging, since there were more words to work with. Wynne’s puzzle, which he called a “Word-Cross,” debuted on Sunday December 21 as planned. And it was well-received. So many people wrote in to praise the puzzle that he put one in the paper the following Sunday, and again on the third Sunday.
Four weeks after the puzzle first appeared, typesetters at the newspaper inadvertantly transposed the words in the title to read “Cross-Word.” For some reason, the name stuck – and so did the puzzle. When the World tried to drop it a few months later, readers were so hostile that the paper reversed itself and decided to make it a permanent feature of the puzzle page instead.
Though the puzzles were popular with readers, they were decidedly unpopular with editors. Crosswords were difficult to print and were plagued with typographical and other errors. In fact, no other newspaper wanted any part of them. So for the next 10 years, if you wanted to work on a crossword puzzle, you had to buy the World.
According to legend, in 1924 a young Columbia University graduate named Richard L. Simon went to dinner at his Aunt Wixie’s house. A World subscriber and a cross-word devotee, she asked where she could buy a book of crossword puzzles for her daughter. Simon, who was trying to break into the publishing business with college chum M. Lincoln Schuster, told her there was no such book. . .and then hit on the idea of publishing one himself.
The next day, he and Schuster went to the World’s offices and made a deal with the paper’s crossword puzzle editors. They would pick the newspaper’s best crossword puzzles and pay $25 apiece for the rights to publish them in a book. The pair then used all their money to print The Cross Word Puzzle Book.
It was literally an overnight success. The World’s crossword puzzlers flocked to stores to get copies, and by the end of the year more than 300,000 crossword books had been sold.
The book turned Simon & Schuster into a major publisher. (Today it’s the largest U.S. publishing house and the second-largest publisher on earth.) It also started a major craze. Crossword puzzles became a way of life in the 1920s. Newspapers started adding them to increase circulation. They inspired a Broadway hit called Games of 1925 and a hit song called “Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me.” Sales of dictionaries soared, and foot traffic in libraries increased dramatically. Clothes made with black-and-white checked fabric were the rage. The B & O Railroad put dictionaries on all its mainline trains for crossword-crazy commuters.
Some folks were driven over the edge by the craze. In 1924, a New York Telephone Company employee shot his wife when she wouldn’t help with a crossword puzzle. And in 1926, a Budapest man committed suicide, leaving an explanation in the form of a crossword puzzle. (No one could solve it.) Eventually, the craze died down. It took The New York Times to revive it.
By the late 1930s, the crossword puzzle boom that started in 1924 had begun to fizzle – largely because the crossword puzzles in most newspapers had become predictable. They constantly repeated boring clues like “Headgear” (hat), “Writing Instrument” (pen) and “Woody plant” (tree).
But readers of The New York Times never got bored with their crossword puzzle. . .because the Times didn’t have one. Then, as now, the Times considered itself America’s “newspaper of record” and the guardian of journalistic standards. It scoffed at crossword puzzles as “a primitive form of mental exercise” in a 1924 editorial, and refused to print them.
Eighteen years later, it was one of the last puzzle holdouts among America’s newspapers.
Still, the Times had crossword puzzle fans on its staff. Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzburger is said to have loved crosswords almost as much as he hated having to buy copies of the rival New York Herald Tribune in order to get them. And as America teetered on the brink of war in the early 1940s, the mood at the paper began to change.
Less than two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lester Markel, the Times’s Sunday editor, dashed off a memo to his superiors suggesting that they consider adding a puzzle to the Sunday paper. The pressures and demands of the war played heavily on his mind. “We ought to proceed with the puzzle,” he wrote, “especially in view of the fact that it is impossible that there will now be bleak blackout hours – or if not that, then certainly a need for relaxation of some kind or other. . . . We ought not to try to do anything essentially different from what is now being done – except to do it better.”
Markel had met with Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, senior crossword puzzle editor at Simon & Schuster, and he attached a memo from her:
The Herald Tribune runs the best puzzle page in existence so far, but they have gotten into a bit of a rut. Their big puzzle never ventures even one imaginative definition, and lacks the quality that I believe can be achieved and maintained. We could, I dare to predict, get the edge on them.
I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this kind of pastime in an increasingly worried world. You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword. . .
The argument worked. The Times hired Farrar away from Simon & Schuster and made her its crossword editor, a position she held until she retired in 1969. The first puzzle appeared on February 15, 1942, in the Sunday magazine section. (Weekday puzzles weren’t added until September 1950.) “The puzzle,” writes Times reporter Richard Shepard, “was an instant success.”
The Times estimates that it takes the average puzzler half an hour to solve the 15-square-by-15-square daily puzzle, and two hours to solve the much larger Sunday puzzle.
The Times daily puzzles are designed to get progressively harder from Monday through Saturday. The Saturday puzzle is nearly impossible for anyone but experts to solve. The Sunday puzzle is even worse. the paper figures that the weekend puzzles should be the hardest, because that’s when people have the most time to work on them.
Constructing the crossword puzzles takes a lot more time than solving them. “It takes me four days to make a times Sunday puzzle,” says Maura B. Jacobson, one of the Times’ constructors. “I spend at least 10 to 12 hours making definitions. My research takes a day, then a day to get the words into the diagram to make them cross. But the hardest is making the definitions.”
Making a puzzle that lives up to New York Times standards isn’t easy – Eugene Maleska, the paper’s crossword editor in 1992, estimates that there aren’t more than 600 people in the entire country skilled enough to do it. And the puzzles have to be thoroughly edited before they go to press. “I and all editors change about a third of the definitions,” Maleska told reporters in 1992. “I have a notebook filled with definitions so that I don’t repeat them.”
The New York Times goes to great lengths not to offend anyone with its puzzles. Words as innocuous as “bra” are forbidden, as are the names of illegal drugs. Words such as “ale” and “rum” are considered to be at the extreme limit of good taste – they are permitted but aren’t used often.
Under Margaret Farrar’s direction, the crossword “constructors” (freelance puzzle makers) developed a clever and elaborate style. Instead of giving clues like “Stinging insect” (bee) and “Bird’s home” (nest), they phrased them as “Nector inspector” and “Nutcracker’s suite.” The Times’s clever, whimsical style almost single-handedly ushered in a crossword renaissance, as newspapers all over the U.S. followed its lead.
Today, more than 90 percent of newspapers around the world have crossword puzzles, and according to a study by the U.S. Newspaper Advertizing Bureau, 26 percent of people who read newspapers regularly attempt to solve them.
The New York Times crossword puzzle sets the standard that other puzzles follow. Here are just some of the informal (but strictly followed) “rules” that were established by the Times’s example:
- There can be no “unkeyed” letters – letters that appear in only one word of the puzzle. Every single letter of the puzzle must be a part of both a horizontal and a vertical word.
- The black and white pattern must be “diagonally symmetrical.”
- The black squares should not take up more than one-sixth of the total design.
- The puzzle shouldn’t have “dirty double-crossers” – that is, obscure words should not intersect one another.