Crosswords! Or, the End of Civilization As We Know It

New York Times 'Crossword Mania Breaks Up Homes' article (December 10, 11, 1924), New Britain Herald 'The Cross-Word Puzzles Bridegroom' cartoon. (July 18, 1924)
(From New Britain Herald, via Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard College; used w/o permission.)

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

Crossword Puzzles and Divorce: 1924

Oliver Herford's 'Demon Rum' editorial cartoon. Demon Rum and assorted drug-addiction monsters bothering Uncle Sam. (1919)
(From O. Herford, via Life Magazine/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Title page, 'The War That Will End War,' H. G. Wells. (1914) From Internet Archive, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.“The War That Will End War” was over.

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.

Neglected Cleveland Wives Said to Plan Divorces From Stricken Husbands.

“CLEVELAND, Dec. 10 [1924] — 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.”

“Driven to Madness by Crossword Puzzles…”

'Crossword Murder,' The Cincinnati Post. (December 18, 1925; page 15) Clipping from lansow91 and Newspapers.comI don’t know if The Cincinnati Post called for tougher crossword control laws in response to a 1925 Christmas season murder and attempted suicide.

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.

‘Experts Speak Out’

'A Familiar Form of Madness' op-ed, clipping, The New York Times (November 17, 1924)
(From The New York Times, via Nieman Journalism Lab, used w/o permission.)
(Op-ed, The New York Times. (November 17, 1924))

CROSS-WORD HEADACHE BOOMS OPTICAL TRADE,' 'Cross-Worditis...' and other headlines. (1920s)Medical experts said crossword puzzles hurt your eyes and steal memory from crossword addicts. Yes, crossword addiction was a thing in the 1920s; and may still be.

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.”

“Word-Cross” Origins, From Sator Squares to a Sunday Supplement

Queen Victoria's, 'Windsor Enigma,' from 'Victorian Enigmas, or Windsor Fireside Researches' by Charlotte Eliza Capel (1861))
(From Queen Victoria of England, via The Paris Review, used w/o permission.)

So, who is responsible for crossword puzzles? Did some malevolent mastermind corrupt our minds and blur our eyes, driven dread desire and devious intent?

Well, no.

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.

Dodgson and an Ancient Palindrome

John Tenniel's Cheshire cat illustration for Charles Dodgson's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' (1869)But before that, Charles Dodgson invented a game he called doublets, where you’d change one word into others by changing one letter at a time. It’s sort of like a crossword puzzle, but not quite.

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.


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

It’s Still the End of Civilization as We Know It

Dik Browne's 'Hagar the Horrible:' 'It may be the end of civilization as we know it.' (February 25, 1973)
(From Dik Browne, used w/o permission.)

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

Priorities and Perspective

Walt Kelly's Deacon Mushrat, Pogo and Albert the Alligator, from 'The Pogo Papers.' (1953)Can’t say that I’m sorry those ‘good old days’ are over.

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:

1 Those were the days, my friend …:

2 Remembering the 1920s:

3 Addiction, dependence and our eyes:

4 More than you may want to know about group theory, graffiti and crossword puzzles:

5 … we thought they’d never end, but they did:

6 My distraction this week:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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