Ah! For those halcyon days of yesteryear!
Like the 1920s, the Roaring Twenties: the Jazz Age, or, if you like that European flair, the Années folles. That’s French, and means “Crazy Years.” They weren’t wrong about that.1
In America, prosperity ran rampant while Charlie Chaplain made movies. Women had the right to vote, and Demon Rum had been banned from the land
Meanwhile, in Germany, policies, politics and punishments led to one gold German Mark being worth a trillion paper Marks.2 And that’s almost another topic.
But back here in the Land of the Free, speakeasies flourished and a creeping madness threatened the very foundations of society.
I refer to crossword puzzles. As perceived by at least some serious thinkers of the day.
“CROSSWORD MANIA BREAKS UP HOMES
“Neglected Cleveland Wives Said to Plan Divorces From Stricken Husbands.
“CLEVELAND, Dec. 10  — Homes in this city are now threatened by cross-word Puzzles. The innocent little white and white and black squares have fascinated so many husbands that legal aid organizations are being swamped with requests to solve the enigma or to start divorce proceedings.
“This direful state of affairs was disclosed today by the manager of one of the legal aid organizations, who said that his office was receiving an average of ten letters a day from wives who have to remain at home these evenings just because their husbands are suffering from ‘cross-word puzzleitis.’…”
(New Britain Herald (July 18, 1924) via Nieman Journalism Lab
I wouldn’t call getting 10 letters a day from worried wives a “direful state of affairs,” mostly because I don’t often use words like “direful.” But I would call it serious.
That’s partly because I think marriage and family are important. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2197-2233)
So is remembering that both are more important than crossword puzzles, social media, or playing pinochle.
Then there was the “Crossword Murder.”
Man, Crazed by Them, Slays Wife and Wounds Self.
Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 18 — Driven to madness by crossword puzzles, Theodore Koerner shot and killed his wife because she declined to help him solve one….
“…The husband had suffered two nervous breakdowns since last summer.”
(The Cincinnati Post (December 18, 1925))
I don’t doubt that crossword puzzles were part of the “Crossword Murder.”
But, catchy as that “Crossword Murder” headline is, I don’t think crossword puzzles made Mr. Koerner kill his wife, any more than I would blame his wife. Even though she wouldn’t help him solve one.
Almost a century later, ‘husband kills wife’ and ‘husband kills family’ headlines are still part of the Christmas season.
I don’t know if there’s an uptick in domestic murders then, or if such tragedies are more newsworthy during the holidays. And that’s yet another topic.
Death and divorce weren’t the only crossword-related issues of the 1920s.
Psychological addiction isn’t the same as substance addiction, but they’re similar enough to warrant similar names.
On the other hand, I’m a bit dubious when experts slap the “addiction” label on something that’s new and out of favor with my culture’s better sort.
Or when society’s self-appointed guardians recoil in horror from the latest “direful” threat. Like the angsty articles published during my youth, back when the telephone was destroying society.
My generation, I learned from these doomsayers, never communicated. We just sat for hours, talking on the telephone.
I didn’t, but I suppose some folk my age did. And do, since now I’m reading that folks pay too much attention to their smartphones.
Those 1920s medical experts had a point. Extended focusing on crossword puzzles, comic books, or needlepoint leads to eyestrain. Let’s see what medical experts who aren’t quoted in the news say about that.
“…Eyestrain can be annoying. But it usually isn’t serious and goes away once you rest your eyes or take other steps to reduce your eye discomfort. In some cases, signs and symptoms of eyestrain can indicate an underlying eye condition that needs treatment.”
(Eyestrain, Symptoms and Causes, Mayo Clinic)
I did a little checking, and learned that if someone reads for years and years, that that person almost always develops presbyopia.
Which, oddly enough, has nothing to do with being a Presbyterian. It’s what happens to our eyes if we don’t die young.3 A less highfalutin term is “age-related farsightedness.”
So, who is responsible for crossword puzzles? Did some malevolent mastermind corrupt our minds and blur our eyes, driven dread desire and devious intent?
I’m pretty sure that The New York World’s Sunday Supplement of December 21st, 1913, held the first crossword puzzle. The first in more-or-less today’s format, that is.
The “mental exercise” was concocted by Arthur Wynne, formerly of Liverpool, England; and then employed as a journalist by the Pittsburgh Press and The New York World.
Mr. Wynne called his word-puzzle “Word-Cross.” An illustrator changed it to Cross-Word, Mr. Wynne didn’t mind, and now crosswords are part of our language.
And before that, England’s Queen Victoria assembled the “Windsor Enigma,” which brought coals to Newcastle. By way of Naples, Washington, Cincinnati, and other famous cities.
And way before that, ancient Romans made their Sator Square their empire’s “Kilroy was here.” The latter showed up in the 1940s, probably, thanks to American soldiers, maybe. Origins of Kilroy are debatable and debated.
The earliest Sator Squares we know about were in Pompeii.
A Sator Square is a two-dimensional palindrome with four symmetries. The 2D palindrome’s symmetry group is the Klein four-group, not the dihedral group of order 8, for reasons that are yet again another topic.
|R O T A S||S A T O R|
|O P E R A||A R E P O|
|T E N E T||T E N E T|
|A R E P O||O P E R A|
|S A T O R||R O T A S|
I’d keep talking about crossword puzzles, palindromes, academic debates and 20th century graffiti, but I’m running out of time. So if you’re interested, check out some of the articles I found: I’ve linked to them, near the end of this piece.4
A century has passed since cross-word puzzleitis threatened America’s very foundations. According to some serious thinkers, that is.
And we’re still here.
Although this isn’t the America of the Roaring Twenties: or America of the Progressive Era and First Red Scare that came before.5
And I do not I yearn for the ‘good old days’ of my childhood, when “she’s smart as a man” was supposed to be a compliment.
Or the Sixties, when doomsayers mourned the end of civilization as they knew it.
They were right, by the way, it was the end of the old status quo.
I’m pretty sure that crosswords don’t deserve blame for divorce, death and other direful doings during the Roaring Twenties. Not as an underlying cause, at any rate.
I’m also pretty sure that some folks really were were letting themselves get distracted by crossword puzzles and trolley parks.
Just as today some of us give new tech more attention we should.
And just as this week I’ve been paying overmuch to a not-so-new game/simulation: SimCity 4. Which is why I’m rushing to get this written in time for Saturday morning.
Given what I’ve done this week, I could denounce or renounce SimCity 4,6 computers or recreation in general.
Instead, I’ll share my experience: and try putting my priorities in proper order next week. Or better order, at any rate.
And repeat what I’ve said before.
Change happens. Fearing change doesn’t make sense; or isn’t useful, at any rate.
And blaming crossword puzzles, telephones, social media or any other newfangled fad, fashion or tech for problems that have been plaguing humanity since the first of us made a bad choice doesn’t make sense.
Now, the usual ‘(sort of) related stuff’ link list:
- COVID-19 and People Who Need People, Another Year”
(January 25, 2022)
- Thanksgiving Weekend 2021: Puritans, Pandemic and Me”
(November 27, 2021)
- Sifting Through the Ash Heap of History”
(October 30, 2021)
- Alabaster Cities, Fireworks, a Condo Disaster and Tears”
(July 3, 2021)
- Couney’s Baby Incubators vs. the Progressive Era”
(February 8, 2021)
- “A time before Wordle: Newspapers used to hate word puzzles Feb. 22, 2022”
Luis Anslow, NiemanLab, Nieman Foundation at Harvard
(February 22, 2022)
- “Wordle: The New York Times hated crossword puzzles before it embraced them”
Pessimists Archive, Big Think (February 15, 2022)
- “Today In History: First Modern Crossword Puzzle Is Published”
Jennifer Govan, Blog, Gottesman Libraries, Columbia University (December 20, 2021)
- “A Brief History of Word Games”
Adrienne Raphel, The Paris Review (March 23, 2020)
- “How the Crossword Became an American Pastime”
Deb Amlen, Smithsonian Magazine (December 2019)
- “English professor unravels the word puzzles of 19th Century British Literature”
ECU News Services, East Carolina University (March 16, 2009)