Crossword Puzzle History: How it became a Necessary Diversion

While crossword puzzles have been a constant source of comfort during stressful times, this mind stimulating activity has come a long way since its inception. In fact, the most difficult times of the 20th Century have molded the history of this puzzle.


Crossword puzzle came to life in the December of 1913, when World War I was just about to begin. New York World’s editor, Arthur Wynne, was in search of a new, attractive game for the ‘FUN’ section of New York World. He decided to print a ‘blank-word’ based search grid that would include clues for readers to find out what the letters were. Arthur named this game as ‘FUN’s Word-Cross Puzzle’. Within a few weeks, this name changed to ‘Cross-Word’, owing to a printing error. This revised name became a permanent change.

Readers started taking interest in this new game in no time, and the puzzle solvers were termed as ‘cruciverbalists’ – or fans of crossword. The grid served as their singular sanctuary from the terrible on-going war. With the progress of the War, newspapers started directing the focus of the readers from the mayhem reported in the main news headlines to the puzzle-containing page, using advertisements and banners. This way, crossword was used to help anchor the readers during these uncertain times. As the War kept getting more intense, so did the enthusiasm and dedication of the crossword fans. This mentally stimulating activity grew popular once the Armistice came into effect.


There was a boom in the world of crossword puzzle during the period of 1920s. With the advent of musicals themed on crossword puzzles, stocking patterned on crossword, and this activity being featured on comic strips such as ‘Cross Word Cal’, it was evident that crossword puzzle had taken the world by storm. All types and kinds of crossword puzzle were available for solving; some were designed with careful regulations and editing, while others were more carelessly designed. Nonetheless, the readers were hungry for puzzles, no matter what size or shape they came in.

However, one of the leading newspapers of that time, the ‘New York Times’ did not feature crossword puzzle in their newspaper. In fact, this newspaper published multiple editorials all through the 1920s and 1930s claiming crossword puzzle to be nothing more than a fad. The editors denied entertaining the pleas of readers to include puzzles in their paper because they were of the belief that newspapers should attract readers without having to depend on puzzles.


Several decades had passed before the ‘Timesc decided to include a crossword puzzle in their paper. Finally, 2 months post the air strike on Pearl Harbor, on 15th February, 1942, this famed newspaper gave in. Everyone suddenly realized the significance of crossword puzzle as being more than a mere distraction. This activity had taken the shape of a much-needed diversion, especially during the upcoming ‘blackout days’, or so an editor had mentioned to Arthur hay Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher.

However, Sulzberger opined that if the Times would feature a crossword puzzle, it would have to be the finest the nation had ever seen. To this end, he took the help of Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, the individual responsible for editing the highly successful crossword collection series by ‘Simon and Schuster’. Farrar had begun her career in the ‘New York World’ as an editor for crossword puzzle, and worked to provide topmost-quality puzzles to the world.

Unlike other publications that did not place regulations and designed grids with fast play and wild looks, Farrar placed regulations and carefully edited grids, which have now been taken up as industry standards. Majority of such regulations were of architectural nature in which grids should feature rotational symmetry, and grids should contain no unchecked squares. However, Farrar also designed the clues in such a way that both adults and kids can solve these puzzles.


The absence of civility in England caused crossword puzzles to become serious threats rather than a fun but powerful distraction. At the time of World War II, a few answers to the puzzle in the Observer, caught the attention of the British Intelligence in the wrong way. Code words used by the Allies, like ‘JUNO’, ‘Gold’, and ‘SWORD’, did not initially stir up any suspicion among the British Intelligence. This is because these words were far-spaced on the puzzle. However, in 1994 (May), the use of more uncommon codes like ‘OMAHA’. ‘MULBBERY’, ‘UTAH’, ‘OVERLORD’, and ‘NEPTUNE’, on a frequent basis caused a stir among the government officials.


The suspicion of British Intelligence traced back to one source – a gentleman by the name Leonard Dawe. This gentleman was a boy’s school headmaster, and one of the best solvers of the Observer’s puzzles. Dawe was taken by surprise when government officials visited him and demanded that he showed them his notebooks. He did not, for a second, think that he was engaged in any suspicious activity. However, the Intelligence officers could not link Dawe with the enemies due to lack of evidence, and Dawe could not be labelled as a traitor anymore.

This mystery was unfolded in 1984, when a former student of Dawe claimed that he had helped Dawe to solve the puzzles. According to this student, many other students had helped Dawe in solving the crossword puzzles. Most of these students had been around soldiers’ camps next to the school at the time of recess, which is when they came across the code words. They then used these words to fill in the blanks in the puzzles. After his interaction with the British officials, Dawe suspected that it had to do something with his students. And once he learned how these students came upon these words, Dawe knew that involving the students had resulted in him being an ‘accidental traitor’. Dawe made his students promise not to tell a word about this incident to anyone, which this former student claimed to have kept till 1984.

While the War came to an end in 1945, crossword puzzles became an intricate part of the lives in both the U.S.A. and the U.K. Today, crossword puzzle-solving is a ritual, which will continue to provide escape to solvers when trouble attacks them in new ways in this new world.