PAST IS PROLOGUE

The Surprising History of Crossword Puzzles

A short history of that infamous homewrecker, the Crossword Puzzle

Jack Shepherd
Published in
8 min readAug 8, 2022

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Via Nieman Lab: A time before Wordle: Newspapers used to hate word puzzles

If Wardle is the Wardle of the Wordle, then Wynne was the Wardle of The World. Put less stupidly, Arthur Wynne’s 1913 “Word-Cross” puzzle for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper was not the first such puzzle, but it was the first to be laid out in a recognizable proto-crossword format, and the first to be called “crossword” (the title would be reversed and the hyphen removed in later editions). And like the Wordle, a central feature of Wynne’s crossword puzzles from the very beginning seems to have been a social one. There was a viral element to these early newspaper word games, such that readers began quickly to compile their own crosswords and send them in, with some eventually appearing in print under a byline from the growing crossword community. “The puzzle editor has kindly figured out that the present supply will last until the second week in December, 2100,” Wynne bemusedly announced to his submitters in 1915.¹

A recreation of the first ever “Word-Cross” puzzle by Arthur Wynne from December 21, 1913

Like many things that satisfy the morally dangerous trifecta of “fun,” “new,” and “popular,” crosswords were treated with immediate and prolonged suspicion in the media, which regarded them as a perilously addictive habit that would fry everybody’s brains and bring human industry to a grinding halt if they weren’t replaced at once with something productive like Latin poetry or pompous op-eds about political correctness. A 1924 article in The Tamworth Herald, with the restrained headline “CROSS-WORD PUZZLES. AN ENSLAVED AMERICA” worried that crosswords have “dealt the final blow to the art of conversation, and have been known to break up homes,” going on to give an account of crossword addicts forced to curtail their home-wrecking puzzle mania by local police. Booksellers reported a sudden decline of interest in great novels as the frothing, crossword-addled throngs gave up buying books in favor of thesauruses for their deranged pastime. And The New York Times lamented the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern…

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Jack Shepherd
Human Parts

I have a newsletter about crossword puzzles and a podcast about rom-coms. Formerly editorial director @BuzzFeed. Email: JackAShepherd at gmail