17 Across: History of the Crossword Puzzle

The crossword puzzle has been a relaxing pastime since the early 1900s, but its history is largely unknown. Keep reading for more information on the crossword puzzle’s origins!

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Someone filling out a crossword puzzle with a blue pencil.

The crossword puzzle has been a beloved American pastime for decades, and it remains a staple of many major newspapers over a century after its creation. But do you know when the crossword puzzle was created? Or by whom? The answers to these questions are more interesting than you might think! So in honor of Crossword Puzzle Day, let’s take a look at the history of the crossword puzzle to learn why it remains a popular hobby even now.

The Origins of the Crossword Puzzle

The first crossword puzzle was published in the New York World newspaper on December 21, 1913. Editor Arthur Wynne wanted a new game to add to the “FUN” section of the newspaper, so he designed a diamond-shaped grid along with a series of clues that readers could use to fill in the grid with words. Wynne called his creation “FUN’s Word-Cross Puzzle.” However, when the title was misprinted as “Cross-Word” just a few weeks later, the new name stuck, giving the puzzle its permanent moniker.

A woman solving a crossword puzzle on a New York subway car.

This first iteration of the crossword puzzle came shortly before the beginning of World War I, and during this time of chaos, the New York World used the simple game to distract readers from its dire headlines. Throughout the war, more and more newspapers adopted the crossword to provide comfort during troubling times. Even after the war ended, the puzzle remained popular, inspiring songs, comic strips, and clothing items that cemented crosswords into mainstream culture.

The Evolution of the Crossword Puzzle

Despite the public’s love for crossword puzzles, there was one newspaper that continuously refused to print the game — the New York Times. The paper held high editorial standards, believing that relying on puzzles to garner readers’ attention was a cheap tactic. In fact, the Times was so opposed to crosswords that it ran a 1924 editorial calling them “a primitive sort of mental exercise.” However, on February 15, 1942, the New York Times finally caved and printed its first crossword puzzle two months after the attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, recognizing the need for a lighthearted pastime during blackout hours.

The New York Times headquarters building.

The New York Times’s adoption of the crossword helped establish the puzzle as we know it today. While the Amateur Cross Word Puzzle League of America had begun establishing standards for the appearance of crossword puzzles as early as 1924, the regulations put in place by New York Times puzzle editor Margaret Petherbridge Farrar played an instrumental role in shaping industry norms for the puzzle. Farrar’s rules were mostly structural; for instance, grids had to be symmetrical and could not contain unchecked squares (squares that are only a part of one answer). One of her rules, however, had to do with the content of the puzzles: all puzzles were required to pass the Sunday Breakfast Test, meaning the clues and answers had to be appropriate for both children and adults.

The Legacy of the Crossword Puzzle

A crossword puzzle with a pen lying across it.

In the aftermath of World War II, crosswords remained a cherished pastime. Although, now they were no longer a much-needed reprieve from the harrows of war but a leisurely activity to look forward to each morning. Today, many people still like to solve crosswords with pen and paper, while others are embracing digital crossword puzzles from publications like USA Today and The Washington Post. Whatever your preference may be, solving crossword puzzles is a relaxing activity to do on your own or to share with friends and family. Plus, they’re a great way to boost your memory and keep your brain healthy while having fun.

If you want to try solving the first-ever crossword puzzle, you can view a copy of it here! Then, once you’ve finished, check your answers here.

For more literary history, click here or here.

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