When crosswords first swept across North America in the mid-1920s, The New York Times sneered, calling them a “familiar form of madness” and the next fad after Mahjong. Claims that these puzzles were a good mental exercise and a way to expand one’s personal lexicon, via a dictionary, have been dismissed.
In another article published the following year, titled “Seeing Evil, Not Education”, The Times argued that learning obscure three-letter words was pointless – but it didn’t stop there. “The indictment of riddles goes deeper and deeper,” he said, quoting The New Republic, which posited that there was no worse exercise for writers and speakers due to fixation. of “false definitions in the mind”.
This article prompted a letter to the editor from a reader who retorted, “I’m afraid many of your readers will disagree with the views expressed”, pointing out that it was generally accepted that crossword puzzles were educational.
Crossword puzzles: a national threat
This animosity makes more sense when you understand the origins of crossword puzzles in America: they were popularized via the pages of the original tabloid, The New York World, the “new media” of the time. As for the journalistic establishment, crossword puzzles were another mindless fad used as a substitute for a good editorial, to keep readers coming back – much like BuzzFeed quizzes were in the 2010s. Tabloids were considered as trash, childish and plebeian and were labeled the “yellow press” after one of the many comic strips they contained. The New York Times would refuse to publish crossword puzzles for another two decades.
Across the Atlantic in the UK, The Times of London reported on the American crossword craze with similar disdain, using an ironically tabloid headline “An Enslaved America”. From 1924:
All of America has succumbed to the seductions of crossword puzzles. In a matter of weeks, it has gone from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers to a national institution and almost a national threat: a threat because it makes devastating inroads into the working hours of all sections of society.
The ubiquity of crossword puzzles in the United States has been described in detail. This “fashion” was “in omnibus trains and trams, in subways, in private offices and counting rooms, in factories and homes, and even – though rarely – with hymns for camouflage, in the church”. Along with other modern trends, the crossword had supposedly “dealt the final blow to the art of conversation”.
Crossword: An Invasive Weed
According to the London Times estimate, more than ten million people spent half an hour each day solving the puzzles when they should be working, noting “this loss to productive activity by far more time than wasted by labor strikes”. He even likened them to an invasive weed, stating “The crossword puzzle threatens to be the wild hyacinth of American industry”.
Judging by reports at the time, this proverbial ‘wild hyacinth’ had invaded the UK the following year, when reports emerged of Queen Mary, wife of King George V, taking up the hobby. Crossword puzzles were scorned as “the laziest occupation” and an “unsociable habit”. A British woman has sued her husband for staying in bed until 11 a.m. doing a crossword puzzle. Public libraries waged a “war on crossword puzzles” by deleting quizzes in their freely available journals and restricting access to dictionaries in reading rooms.
An essay titled “In abuse of the cross-word puzzle” noted that early adopters of golf and bridge were abused for their frivolity, but have now emerged as intellectual giants “in the age of puzzles!” – failing to learn a lesson from history, namely that crosswords would end up being considered as intellectual as well. “As unbelievable as it may seem,” he also noted, reading novels was also looked down upon by parents not so long ago. Crosswords (and puzzles) were different, according to the author: “Has an age ever been devoted to such mind-numbing hobbies or labeled with signs of such mental degradation?”
Less than five years after deriding them, the Times of London would relent and print its first crossword puzzle.
A Mental Illness Called “Crossword”
Back in the United States, the crossword habit was pathologized and medicalized, and the term “crossword” was coined – probably in jest – but it would eventually come to the attention of medical authorities and doctors. A doctor concluded that the “crossword puzzle” had “stole” his patient’s memories. “Crossword insomnia” was another reported phenomenon, similar to clever fiddling late at night. Optometrists have claimed that this habit causes headaches and impaired eyesight.
Magistrates lambasted court officials, police officers, lawyers and their clients for “hindering the wheels of justice” by mulling over the riddles. Academics have made similar complaints about their students, and the University of Michigan has instituted an outright ban on lecture halls.
“Alas! How quickly can happy dreams be shattered.
Crosswords have been cited as grounds for divorce in more than one case, receiving widespread press attention, including The New York Times, which ran the headline “Crossword Mania Shatters Houses”. Other newspapers published cartoons featuring weeping bridegrooms and brides engrossed in riddles.
American libraries had the same complaints as British libraries about their effect on library habits, and when a US prosecutor was two hours late for a speech, he blamed a crossword puzzle he started during the train ride. Physical assaults and even murder-suicides have also been blamed on crossword puzzles.
Many of these sensationalized, perhaps ironic reports appeared in the very newspapers that printed them, sometimes right next to the crossword puzzles themselves.
At that time, some newspaper publishers defended the crossword puzzle, insisting that it was beneficial, but this was unconvincing as they benefited financially from the craze. Eventually, The New York Times relented, as the United States entered World War II – the editors decided the people needed a distraction and an escape. La Dame Grise printed its premiere on Sunday, February 15, 1942.
“I don’t think I have to sell you on the growing demand for this kind of hobby in an increasingly restless world,” wrote the Times’ first crossword editor. “You can’t think of your problems while solving crossword puzzles.”
A century later, pun manias are still relevant. Scrabble enjoyed a renaissance on the web and then on mobile through Words with Friends in the 2010s. In late 2021, Wordle gained mainstream coverage in The New York Times. He was hailed as free from the pressures of the hyper-capitalist attention economy; the one-game-per-day limit was held as a forced numerical moderation, ignoring its Pavlovian nature. It was supposedly fun for fun, not for profit and attention.
On January 31, 2022, The New York Times announced that it had purchased Wordle for a price in the “low seven figures” from its creator, promising to keep it free “at first”. Regarding the acquisition, The Times called the games “an essential part of its strategy” to increase subscriptions: puzzles to make The New York Times part of the daily routine, like the New York World’s strategy there. nearly a century old.
Background photo from the December 11, 1924 issue of The New York Times, courtesy of TimesMachine.