The History of the Crossword Puzzle

The music composer Stephen Sondheim said, “The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there is a solution.”

And it’s true. Doing crossword puzzles have a way of taking away your worries. They are not unsolvable puzzles, and they are not meant to be.

But they can be quite challenging. In fact, crossword puzzles have evolved quite a lot over time in order to keep puzzlers interested.

If you’re a crossword fan, you might be interested to learn the history of these puzzles.
Read on to find out where the crossword puzzle began, and how it has changed over time…

Childish beginnings

It turns out that despite the crossword puzzles immense popularity as a pastime, it hasn’t been around for very long. The first known crossword puzzles appeared in England in the nineteenth century.

And they weren’t what you see in newspapers and crossword puzzle books today. Instead, these early English crosswords were published in children’s puzzle books and some periodicals, and they were much simpler than today’s complex puzzles.

The early version of the game was derived from the word square, which is a group of words arranged such that they read the same both vertically and horizontally.

Unlike crossword puzzles, word squares actually do have ancient roots, being traceable as far back as the ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii.

You can see an example of a word square here.

The first newspaper crossword puzzle

After progressing from children’s puzzles to more complex varieties, crossword puzzles made their first appearance in a newspaper in America, New York World, on December 21, 1913. The puzzle published in this newspaper was created by journalist Arthur Wynne, a man from Liverpool in England.

But he didn’t call it a crossword puzzle at the time. Instead, it was called a word-cross. Later, the name was switched to crossword. And eventually (because of a typo), the hyphen was dropped, and it was just crossword, as we see the word written today.

Wynne’s puzzle was shaped like a diamond rather than a square, and it did not have the black squares found in today’s crossword puzzles. You can find a picture of this original crossword puzzle here.
The main difference between word squares and the crossword puzzle that Wynne invented is that word squares provide the player only with words to arrange, and crossword puzzles provide the player with clues to which words to fill in.

The popularity of the puzzle picked up, and crosswords were soon published in the majority of American newspapers during the 1920s. The shape of the puzzles evolved and became similar to the shape people are most familiar with today.

The New York Times picks up the trend

Of special note, The New York Times was a crossword holdout and didn’t publish their first crossword puzzle until February 15, 1942. The editors at this paper at first held the belief that crosswords frivolous. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they decided that a puzzle might provide readers with some relief from the serious news.

Of course, true to their high quality standards, the crossword puzzle editor at The New York Times, Margaret Farrar, worked for 27 years on raising the quality of the puzzles constructions and making them more challenging for readers to solve.

Moving back to its birthplace

Around the time that crossword puzzles were picking up in popularity in the United States, the idea got picked up in England again. Its first published appearance in Britain was in Pearson’s Magazine in February of 1922.

Of course, British puzzle creators were not content to leave the puzzle without further evolutions. Their puzzles developed their own style and became much more difficult than American crosswords.
In Britain, a type of crossword puzzle called the cryptic crossword became quite popular. Generally accepted rules for cryptic crosswords were developed by A.F. Ritchie and D.S. Macnutt.
Famous crossword puzzlers

A.F. Ritchie and D.S. Macnutt were crossword puzzle geniuses. They created millions of puzzles by hand, each developing his own style and amassing puzzle fans.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, each of these men were educators.

Ritchie was an ordained priest who eventually became headmaster of the Cathedral School at Wells, England. He designed and published crosswords under the pseudonym Afrit.

Macnutt also used a pseudonym when publishing his crossword puzzles, Ximenes. He was the headmaster of the classics department at Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, England.

Crossword puzzle books

Although they started as simple entertainment for Sunday newspapers, crossword puzzles eventually became so popular that whole books of crosswords were published. The first collection, in fact, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1924 in the US. That publishing company still publishes crossword puzzle books today.

The first crossword tournament

In 1978, the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held in Stamford, Connecticut. The tournament in Stamford is still held annually, and it is the oldest and largest crossword tournament in the US.

It was founded by Will Shortz, who became the crossword puzzle editor at The New York Times in 1993. He still hosts the event.

The shift to digital crossword puzzles

Despite being an early holdout, The New York Times really became a champion of these puzzles. In 1996, they offered the first electronic version of their crossword puzzle on the internet.

In 1997, a company called Variety Games Inc. patented the first computer program that generated crossword puzzles. The software is called Crossword Weaver, and you can still download it via their website to generate your own printable puzzles.

Today, you can find crossword puzzles available on many websites in both electronic and printable formats.

Crossword puzzle fans

Crossword puzzles have amassed many types of fans throughout the decades. The famous puzzle makers Ritchie and Macnutt both had followers, with Macnutt’s followers calling themselves Ximeneans, after his pseudonym.

The Ximeneans had dinner parties to celebrate the publishing of Ximenes’s new puzzles and even wore black ties with white crosses, specially designed to designate themselves as part of the group.
In 2006, a documentary film was released, called Wordplay. It helped to refuel the fandom of crossword puzzles, which continue to be popular.

One of the things that hasn't changed about crosswords over all this time is that you never know which words will end up solving the puzzle. So although, as Stephen Sondheim quipped, you always know there is a solution to any given crossword puzzle, these word games continue to challenge and intrigue wordplay fans of all ages.