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Quirk of history

When “crossword mania” swept America

Gregory Hartswick, famed New York crossword setter. Getty

If you think everyone is obsessed with Wordle, just imagine the “crossword mania” of the early 20th century, says Jackie Mansky in Smithsonian Magazine. When the wordy puzzles first appeared in American newspapers in 1913, readers were immediately hooked. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad put dictionaries on its trains to “come to the aid of travelling crossword puzzle enthusiasts”; there was a crossword-themed musical on Broadway called Puzzles of 1925; and Punch magazine published a cartoon of a crossword fanatic ringing a doctor in the middle of the night to find the answer to a clue. As The New York Times’s former puzzle editor Margaret Petherbridge put it: “Crosswords were the Beatles of 1924.”

Not everyone was a fan. The Amateur Athletic Union complained that “the fascination of the puzzles is keeping the athletes of the country away from their training”. And the president of the British Optical Association blamed the crossword for widespread eye strain. “Qualified opticians,” he said, “could perform valuable service to the public in warning them against over-indulgence in the pastime under wrong conditions.” Thankfully, no one paid much attention – these days more than 50 million Americans do a crossword every day.