The actress Helen Walker puzzles over a crossword, circa 1940s.Everett Collection
It was 1913, the year that Ford Motors debuted the moving assembly line, that Brillo pads were invented and that Camel introduced its cigarettes to the world. And on Dec. 21, exactly a century ago, The New York World newspaper published the first crossword puzzle.
But the "cross word," as it was known then, wasn't an immediate sensation. It took more than a decade before The World's puzzles were gathered into a collection, in April 1924. The compilation of 50 puzzles was then-start-up company Simon & Schuster's first project and came in a blue hard cover with gold lettering. By the end of the year, nearly a million copies had sold.
"Judging from the number of solvers in the subway and 'L' trains," wrote The New Yorker in its Feb. 21, 1925, issue, "the crossword puzzle bids fair to become a fad with New Yorkers."
YOU TRY IT: Download and print a puzzle by Francis Heaney celebrating 100 years of crossword puzzles. When you're done, check your answers.
In the subsequent decades, crosswords have indeed become a fad, and not just with New Yorkers. Filling out the puzzles remains, for many Americans, a Sunday-morning ritual. Some deem it sacrilege to use anything other than pencil and eraser to fill out their grids, while others boldly complete theirs with ink. Still others prefer the digital experience. Will Shortz, crossword-puzzle editor for The New York Times, says the newspaper has more than 50,000 online crossword subscribers.
Crossword fanatics — and there are many — say the 100-year-old crossword isn't in its golden years but in its golden age.
"Crosswords have never been more interesting than they are now," says Shortz.
I couldn't live without them. It's my lifeblood. I don't sleep at night because I think, 'What rhymes with "ritz" and "sits" and "pits"?' I do my best work from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Bernice Gordon, a 99-year-old crossword constructor who designs puzzles for The New York Times and other publications, says she owes her longevity in part to crosswords.
"I couldn't live without them," she says. "It's my lifeblood. I don't sleep at night because I think, 'What rhymes with "ritz" and "sits" and "pits"?' I do my best work from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m."
Gordon says crosswords became part of her life in the 1940s. "I was a widow when I was 32 years old, and I was left with two little boys," she said. "And I figured, I can't go out at night, I might as well do something worthwhile.'"
She was the first person to publish a rebus puzzle, which uses the ampersand in answers like CARMEN MIR&A and SC&INAVIA. When she submitted the puzzle to then–New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar, Gordon says she was told she was cheating. (Farrar ended up publishing the puzzle six months later, on May 30, 1965.)
Though Gordon is still making puzzles for The New York Times, she often has a hard time completing ones crafted by other people — especially if it's in a Thursday or Friday paper, when the trickier puzzles run.
"The definitions are over my head. I don't understand the new talk," she says. "I am the Clara Bow age, and this is the Lady Gaga age."
That's the sort of thing The New York Times can't use because it would go over the heads of older players.
former crossword editor of The Onion
The innovation in today's crossword puzzles would make Farrar's head spin. Today there are music puzzles, foodie puzzles, hipster puzzles, puzzles that are raunchy and lowbrow, 3-D puzzles and puzzles with words that extend outside the grid. There's even a puzzle that features a Super Mario Bros. time warp, a nostalgic homage to the video games, for 30-somethings. And a puzzle written in textspeak — srsly.
While the Internet has eroded the business model of newspapers and led some to drop crosswords, it has also freed crossword-puzzle constructors to publish puzzles on their own terms.
"Before, you used to have to write on graph paper and send it in to a paper, and maybe two years later it runs," says Matt Gaffney, a professional puzzle constructor who runs Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest blog.
Crossword aficionados, just like music fans, have different tastes, he says, and the Web has helped create a "renaissance" for puzzles appealing to different demographics. "Grandmom might not be psyched about the new Radiohead album" (and therefore wouldn't see a clue like "Radiohead is the 'King' of them" and think, LIMBS). But she could stick to the mainstream newspaper puzzles, knowing an "Illicit Prohibition-era establishment" is a SPEAKEASY.
Indie crosswords — like professional puzzle writer and editor Francis Heaney's "Your Table Is Ready," which uses the periodic table as a theme — are eclipsing mainstream puzzles among hardcore enthusiasts.
Amy Reynaldo, a competitive crossword solver and the author of "How to Conquer The New York Times Crossword Puzzle," picked Heaney's puzzle as one of her top contenders for puzzle of the year.
The puzzle's answers use numbers that, in the down answers, correspond to the abbreviations for those chemical elements. "It's interesting. It's creative. It's breaking the mold," Reynaldo says of the puzzle.
If it doesn't make your brain hurt, that is.
Ben Tausig is also breaking the mold. He served as crossword editor of The Onion, the spoof newspaper. But after the paper stopped publishing crossword puzzles in November 2012, he started the American Values Club, an online crossword-puzzle publication service that offers members a puzzle a week, along with bonus puzzles, for $15 per year.
Tausig says the AVC crosswords are geared toward the urban creative class. A recent puzzle used gay marriage as a theme. The phrase TRUMP CARD, for example, served as the answer to a clue about the hypothetical marriage of "Donald and Orson Scott" (referring to business mogul Donald Trump and young-adult novelist Orson Scott Card, two men who have been involved in controversies over their opposition to same-sex marriage). One of Tausig's all-time favorite clues was "Chronic eating issue?," which had an 11-letter marijuana-minded answer: THE MUNCHIES.
Says Tausig, "That's the sort of thing The New York Times can't use because it would go over the heads of older players."
David Steinberg, who had his first crossword puzzle published in The New York Times at age 14, is behind another creative but slightly more wholesome crossword.
His "Got Milk?" puzzle was published by The Los Angeles Times on July 8, 2012, and syndicated in The Chicago Tribune and other papers. It arranged several of the black and white squares to resemble Oreo cookies, with the letters O-R-E-O always appearing in the strips of white squares between the black ones: LIQUORSTOREOWNER and BALTIMOREORIOLES.
He says he began building puzzles when he was 12 after seeing "Wordplay," a 2006 documentary film about Shortz's annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Steinberg is currently the crossword editor for The Orange County Register's 24 associated papers.
It's a simple thing that takes 10, 15 minutes, and if it's solved right, it's perfect. There's no way you could've done that better. That's psychologically powerful.
professional puzzle constructor
While there aren't rigid rules to puzzling, there is an etiquette. Puzzles should have a logic and stick to it. If the puzzle's logic is at first unclear, the final answer should be an aha-like reveal. The Dec. 11 American Values Club puzzle, for example, was titled "Not Too Shabby." Theme answers included LOWBLOW, ITSYBITSY and OINGOBOINGO.
"The revealer, down in the bottom part of the grid, is BPLUS, clued as 'Decent grade that could be given to this puzzle's theme answers,'" says Tausig. "Because each of the phrases has two words, the second differing from the first only in that it adds a B. Thus B plus."
Puzzle constructors should never "roll your own" words, as Reynaldo puts it. That means using made-up words like "heavers" or "leerers." Instead, constructors should stick to actual phrases and expressions.
And never, ever use a word like "jazz," which uses two of the alphabet's least-used letters in the English language, just for the sake of it.
"Crossword writers receive a satisfying ego jolt whenever we put one of these four into play," Reynaldo writes on her blog, referring to the letters J, Q, X and Z, "but these letters should fit smoothly, without obvious concessions."
And if there's one thing about the crossword that remains sacred, it's the grid.
"The grid is huge," says Tausig. "It's the equivalent of a canvas. It offers infinite possibilities."
The grid — with its symmetrically arranged black and white squares — imposes order, creates boundaries and allows for psychological satisfaction, he says.
Standard sizes typically range from 15 by 15 to 21 by 21. If you rotate the puzzle 180 degrees, the pattern of black and white squares is identical. Words must be a minimum of three letters.
"Most problems we face in life don't have clear-cut solutions, and we just muddle through life best we can, and we rarely see challenges through start to finish,” says Shortz. "And I think part of the appeal is the pattern of black and white squares. We naturally feel compelled to fill up empty spaces."
Gaffney says this is the eternal appeal of solving puzzles.
"It's a simple thing that takes 10, 15 minutes, and if it's solved right, it's perfect. There's no way you could've done that better," he says. "That's psychologically powerful."