While I was researching Valentine’s Day in Bloomington, it was fun to discover the crossword puzzles in Bloomington’s The Evening World. Given the Bloomington connection to The New York Times crossword, I thought it would be worth taking a little closer look at their history.
I had picked the newspaper in 1925, and I was surprised to see the crossword puzzle was already a regular feature, running daily. Crossword puzzles were introduced a decade earlier, but by the mid-1920s, crossword puzzles had become extremely popular. Touting their popularity, The Evening World published an article on February 3, 1925 stating “Cross-word puzzles have captivated and possessed New York completely.” Urging its readers to give them a try, the newspaper went on to say that puzzle solvers would gain an “augmented vocabulary,” as well as it being great “brain exercise.” Ironically, while one of our local papers was pushing the puzzles by saying that they had become a craze in the big city, The New York Times had, the year before, called crossword puzzles a “primitive sort of mental exercise” and a “waste of time.”
And while for many of us it is synonymous with crossword puzzles, The New York Times was the last metropolitan newspaper to begin running a crossword puzzle as a regular feature, starting in 1942. They began with a Sunday puzzle, adding a daily one in 1950.
Crossword puzzles were also influencing advertising, as evidenced by this crossword found in a February 1925 issue of The Evening World. I haven’t been able to find any discussion of this practice, but it makes sense to me. Businesses often pick up on current trends to attract consumers, and this is just another testament to how quickly crossword puzzles became a fad.
If you are a devotee of the puzzles, you have probably noticed that each newspaper that runs original crossword puzzles (as opposed to reprinting them from another paper) develops a particular style of puzzle. I started doing puzzles as an adolescent, having been taught by my Aunt Peggy. She shared old collections of New York Times Sunday puzzles, which drove me to encyclopedias and dictionaries, looking for answers to the references to Chinese coins or Hebrew letters. Will Shortz definitely made changes when he became the puzzle editor. It is remarkable, in fact, how crossword puzzles can reflect a particular culture and period of time. I’d love to know if you do crosswords and if you have any observations about how they have changed.
Post Submitted by: Georg’ann Cattelona (Research Library Volunteer)
 Our two connections: 1. Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of The New York Times since 1993, as you probably know, got his degree in Enigmatology from IU. Shortz is the only person with this degree, which he created through the Individualized Major Program. While the word itself means the study of riddles, by the time he was done, Shortz had expanded the subject to include the study of all puzzles: math, word, logic, psychology of puzzles. His thesis was on the history of US puzzles before 1860. 2. On February 14, 2017, Bloomington’s own Daniel Larsen became the youngest crossword constructor to be published in The New York Times. This very clever young man is a student at Jackson Creek Middle School. (see “Indiana 7th Grader Becomes Crossword Puzzle Creator,” The Herald-Times, February 20, 2017) By the way, Will Shortz is not the only Hoosier to have become the Times puzzle editor; Will Weng, native of Terre Haute and alumnus of Indiana State Teachers College, was editor from 1969-1977.
Drowne, K.M. and Huber, P. The 1920’s. Popular Culture Through the Ages. New York: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Podcast. Inside the New York Times. What Rhymes with Orange? Everything you ever wanted to know about Crosswords.