In a 1924 editorial headlined “A Familiar Form of Madness,”New York Times expressed its disdain for that vulgar new entertainment, that lowly diversion for idle minds, that pointless display of erudition known as the “cross-word”: “Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjong sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letter of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.” A year later, this Olympian condescension had gotten a little desperate: “The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten.” How and why this “craze” arose and persisted, and how The New York Times came to not only change its institutional opinion but become the epicenter of American crossword culture, is the story told by Adrienne Raphel in her cultural and personal history of crosswords and the “puzzling people who can’t live without them,” of which she is clearly one. At the end of this diverting, informative and discursive book, her love for crosswords is clear, but her reasons — despite a determined effort on her part to explain them — remain, in the end, a puzzle of their own. Ms Raphel proves a skilled cultural historian, dipping into newspaper archives and movie reels and private correspondence to describe how the crossword came to conquer the world. The first “Word-Cross Puzzle” was invented out of desperation by Arthur Wynne, the British-born editor of the Sunday colour supplement (titled, simply, “FUN”) for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The deadline for the Christmas 1913 edition was upon him, and he had a blank space and nothing to fill it with. Perhaps that very problem suggested its solution: a puzzle in which readers had to fill in blank spaces with ideas of their own. That first puzzle was in the shape of a diamond, or perhaps as close to a Christmas wreath as the graphics of the time could provide. The clues were straightforward — “What we should all be” yielded the answer “MORAL” — but the essential idea of a modern crossword, an interlocked array of words in which each solution provides clues to the next, was there. Wynne built his work, as Ms Raphel describes, on centuries of wordplay and word squares, in which words could be read across and down a grid of letters. Wynne wanted to patent his creation, but The New York World refused to pay for the application — thus saving themselves almost $100.
The paper may have come to regret that, as the crossword instantly became the most popular feature in FUN, if not the entire World. Wynne became overwhelmed with the demand for more and better puzzles, and eventually foisted the whole thing off onto his secretary, Margaret Petherbridge, a refined graduate of Smith College. At first Petherbridge, like The Times, thought it a diversion beneath her talents: a snobbery that ended when she tried to solve one herself. Suddenly she understood why “what had seemed like a major nuisance could be her chance to make her mark. … Placing her left hand on a dictionary and raising her right, Petherbridge vowed to take up the crossword.” It was Petherbridge who established the essential elements of modern crosswords: the rigorous proofreading, the separate lists of Across and Down clues, the avoidance of “unchecked boxes,” or squares that were only part of a single word.
As such, she became the true parent of the crossword. Wynne may have birthed it, but Petherbridge raised it.