It's appropriate that the crossword puzzle made its first appearance on the winter solstice.
As Lorenz Hart once reminded us in song, the shortest day of the year has the longest night of the year, and if there was ever an activity invented for long nights, it's the crossword puzzle.The first one appeared on Dec. 21, 1913, as a Christmas present to readers of the "Fun" page of the New York World's Sunday magazine. It was the brainchild of Arthur Wynne, the editor of the section, who dubbed it the "Word-Cross."
To his surprise, readers clamored for more.
For its third appearance, however, a careless compositor reversed the two words and that - minus the hyphen - is how they're known to this day. (This version of the origin of the word doesn't square with Ring Lardner's, who said crosswords got their name because "husbands and wives generally tries to solve them together.")
By whatever name, the puzzles caught on with World readers, but not enough to encourage other newspapers to publish their own. It wasn't until the 1920s that crosswords became a national craze.
For that, according to Michelle Arnot's "What's Gnu?" a history of the crossword puzzle, we can thank Richard Simon's Aunt Wixie. Simon and a college friend, M. Lincoln Schuster, were looking for publishing ideas, and Simon's aunt suggested they publish a book of crosswords. The idea seemed so preposterous that they published the book under the name Plaza Publishing Co. rather than risk the prestige of their fledgling company.
The book was an immediate success - an eraser-tipped pencil was included in the $1.35 price, plus a postcard to mail away for the answers - and Simon and Schuster rushed out two more volumes.
By year's end, the three books occupied the top three spots on the best-seller list, and three crossword books by competitors also made the top 10.
Obviously an entire nation had gone crossword-crazy. A minister in Pittsburgh advertised the titles of his sermons in puzzle fashion on a blackboard beside his pulpit. A Broadway revue featured a skit set in a sanitorium for crossword addicts.
A Chicago housewife complained that her husband was neglecting his job because of his addiction. (A judge sentenced the husband to no more than three puzzles a day.)
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this Diamond Jubilee is the fact that one woman encompasses almost its entire 75 years.
Margaret Petherbridge, fresh out of Smith College, became Wynne's successor as puzzle editor at the World in 1921. She also edited the first 136 of Simon and Schuster's puzzle books - the inexhaustible series is now up to 146. In 1942, she, now Margaret Farrar, became the first puzzle editor of The New York Times. She retired in 1969 but remained active in puzzle-making until her death in 1984.
The Times was one of the last newspaper holdouts against crosswords. "They serve no useful purpose whatever," it sniffed editorially in 1925. Once in, however, it became the benchmark against which all other puzzles were measured, thanks to Mrs. Farrar.
Why have crosswords retained their popularity all these years?
Eugene T. Maleska, Mrs. Farrar's successor at the Times, said "there's so many reasons that it's hard to settle on one. Escape, for one. Someone once sent me a puzzle based on diseases - heart attacks, cancer. I had to send it back. I told him we don't want to remind people of things like that while they're doing crossword puzzles.
"Besides, nature abhors a vacuum. You see all those blank squares and you want to fill them in."
Maleska, 72, doesn't see any more radical changes in the evolution of crosswords, though there is a New Wave of younger constructors that favors sharper breaks with tradition.
"Some people say computers will eventually take over the creation of puzzles, but I doubt it. The heart of a puzzle is the grid, but its soul is the clues, and you can' program a computer to come up with clever, original clues. Puzzles used to be sober affairs, but now they're a lot more humorous and clever."