Dec. 21, 2013 marks the hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle. But the crossword has come a long way since Arthur Wynne's first creation for The New York World. In a lively new book entitled The Curious History of the Crossword, Ben Tausig, himself a noted constructor and editor of crosswords, argues that the day Will Shortz took over the New York Times crossword 20 years ago marked a watershed moment in the puzzle's history.
Every era of the crossword puzzle tells us something about the value of knowledge in the world at that time. From the 1940s to the early 1990s (the period at the New York Times that has been termed the "pre-Shortzian era") solvers had to be up on their geography, botany, poetry, Latin, and Shakespeare to successfully solve a puzzle, while a solver today might be better off studying IMDb.com, the Internet Meme database, and Pitchfork. It's not that older puzzles never made reference to pop culture, or that modern puzzles never have clues about minor poets or biological genera. But more often than not, older puzzles assumed that educated people had a shared awareness of Victorian novels, classical languages, and systems of natural classification, to name a few subjects. Today, this body of knowledge strikes many of us as stuffy and esoteric. But meanwhile, old assumptions have given way to new ones. When and why did this happen?
The story begins in the early 1940s. Though crosswords had existed and been popular since 1913, the New York Times made the trend an acceptable pastime for the intellectual set in 1942, when it began publishing its own puzzle in-house. (The feature went daily in 1950.) Not only that, but the editor the paper hired, Margaret Farrar, turned out to be an excellent choice for the advancement of the crossword puzzle. Farrar was by all accounts a talented, supportive editor, and many of the ground rules she created for crosswords persist to this day.
Farrar's appointment in early 1942 came closely on the heels of the United States' entry into World War II. It has been said that war is "geography's best friend," and indeed with global conflict came increased awareness about international places. So maybe it's no surprise that world capitals and foreign currencies populated so many crossword clues in the middle of the 20th century. Both WWII and the Cold War placed heavy emphasis on foreign affairs in the newspaper, in a way that for many Americans felt both personal and urgent. Being an in-the-know "citizen of the world" meant understanding more than a little about the places where U.S. strategic interests were being advanced.
The emphasis on geography in crosswords was in part a way to practice and affirm such knowledge. Thus, in just one week in early March of 1984, solvers were treated to clues about geographic obscurities like:
…and so on. A solver today might yawn at these arcane references, but just imagine how often the names of Soviet and European cities were in the newspaper in the decades after World War II. Knowing geography was not just about intelligence, but a civic duty.
Of course, it isn't only geopolitics that explains clues like these. Education played a big role, too. Geography was an informal 19th-century addition to the Quadrivium, an educational system comprised of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. From the Renaissance onward, the Quadrivium was the key to understanding more or less everything. Long before social studies and economics, a smart student was one who was familiar with Pyxis and Perseus, about the parallel postulate and Thales' theorem. But during the eras of exploration and colonialism, geography was gradually added to the mix. The National Geographic Society (the same group that created the magazine) was founded in 1888, with a focus on spreading knowledge about geography and encouraging resource conservation. It is certainly no coincidence that the society sprang up just a few years after the Berlin Conference, at which the territories of Africa were carved up by the European colonial powers. Learned people like Alexander Graham Bell, who served as the second president of the NGS, understood the growing value of geographic awareness, and promoted it. Geography grew as an educational trend as a result of such efforts, and became a field that every educated person was expected to know.
Other popular crossword subjects have similar stories — from biological taxonomy to history. Looking at the Sunday puzzle from September 14, 1986 — written by famously stodgy editor Eugene Maleska himself — we can break down some of the key knowledge areas of the pre-Shortzian era. This puzzle, called "Book Country revisited," is an unelaborated list of bestselling books from the previous year that ran at the same time as the now-defunct New York Is Book Country festival in Manhattan. There is almost no wordplay, and nearly every clue asks for either a fact or a synonym. Out of 140 total words, the puzzle includes:
The ideal of the well-rounded member of the intelligentsia appears here in vivid gray. Editor Maleska, in effect, quizzed solvers on their awareness of the current bestseller list, of the world atlas, and of the general knowledge range of the erudite person. Imagine a solver checking the solution grid for a missed answer — he or she wouldn't groan at the clever puns they failed to catch, but might well feel inferior about their own education and reading habits. In this way, crosswords of the middle 20th century could be pointedly classist, rewarding the best-educated members of the urban bourgeoisie while freezing out those of more ordinary taste. The scent of competition and hierarchy were in the air. Stan Newman may have put it best when he wrote that Maleska "took a pedant's pleasure in flummoxing other people with obscure facts."
Maleska, in fact, represented the apex of elitism that existed with the Times crossword. Farrar, as well as Will Weng (who served as editor from 1969 to 1977) each had a flair for wordplay, and both of their puzzles were more fun than Maleska's. But Will Shortz, who took over for Maleska in 1993, changed the flavor of crosswords dramatically. A representative of the "New Wave" of puzzle makers who congealed at Games magazine in the 1980s (the New Wave was led in part by Stan Newman), Shortz was hired over old guard candidates such as John Samson. Shortz introduced a degree of wordplay and popular culture previously unknown to the puzzle. The very first puzzle of the Shortz era, appropriately, and I'll bet deliberately, had a rainbow rebus theme created by Peter Gordon. It was, in every way, colorful, being both lively and literally full of color. Sure, there was still geography (with answers like YELLOWSEA, ANKARA, CASBAH), but most of the place names were broadly familiar. Moreover, some of the entries crossing in the other direction were made simpler to help ease the way in difficult spots. Multi-word answers that people use every day, like GREENBEANS, EKESOUT, and EVENUP, proliferated instead of deeply buried dictionary terms. "Al Green," "Certs breath mints," "Ren and Stimpy," and "60 Minutes" each made their way into the clues in that first puzzle, heralding the arrival of popular music, television, and consumer products in the crossword. Peter Gordon himself went on to edit the New York Sun crossword, which eclipsed even Shortz's puzzles with their contemporary flair. November 21, 1993, the day Shortz began, marked a moment of reform, if not flat-out revolution, for the crossword.
Excerpted from The Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig, by permission of Race Point Publishing. Copyright © 2013.
Ben Tausig is the author of Penguin Classics Crossword Puzzles, Gonzo Crosswords, and Crosswords from the Underground: 72 Puzzles from Alternative Newspapers. He is a freelance puzzle constructor living in New York City. He creates a weekly feature called "Ink Well" distributed in alternative weeklies across the continent in addition to editing The American Values Club Crossword.