A few days ago, while exploring Trove, and in particular their online newspaper archives, I found myself curious about crosswords, and how long it took for them to cross the Pacific and start appearing here. I’ll leave the answer until the end of this post (scrolling isn’t exactly difficult if you’re really impatient), but it was interesting to read just how excited people were about the crossword “craze” as it happened. Since a quick search didn’t find anybody else who had bothered to find out I thought I’d share a few other articles I found on my journey.
Calm Before the Storm
The crossword as we know it today is generally considered to have been invented by Arthur Wynne, an English journalist living in Chicago, with the first one published 21 December 1913 in the New York World. It wasn’t an instant hit – though some other papers started carrying them, and people knew what they were by the turn of the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1924 that the ‘craze’ really took off. (If you want to know more about those early years, or the craze in America, there were plenty of articles written for the 100-year anniversary that cover it in more detail.)
Despite having long been connected to the rest of the world with undersea telegraph cables, and with news and gossip no longer taking weeks to cross the ocean, Australia was even slower on the uptake. Not a single article (of the papers currently searchable in Trove) mentions crosswords, or the American crossword phenomenon, until after the first crossword was published in a newspaper here. Whatever the reason, editors made up for the delay by covering crossword news in minute detail from that point on, passing on all the news and rumours from the USA and England and reaching an (unscientific) average of 13 articles a day on the topic, nationwide, for the entirety of 1925. And if nothing else, Australians never had to deal with the teething phase, when writers were figuring out what made a good clue, or how best to arrange the answers symmetrically; instead, readers were presented with great puzzles right from the start.
Incidentally, there were really only two problems during my “research”, though neither was much of a hindrance. First, the phrase was used occasionally in other contexts, e.g. “She never said a cross word to anyone”, though these were easy to spot. Second, acrostics and word squares would occasionally be referred to as cross-words, which were not as easy to avoid – but fortunately this was rare, and never happened once ‘real’ crosswords became newsworthy. And I’m also not saying that there were no crosswords in Australia before this time, or that they were completely unknown – just that they were not in the newspapers.
The “Cross-word Craze”
As mentioned earlier, I’ll skip over the actual ‘first’ newspaper, and look at a few of the other early or interesting mentions over the next few months:
- January 10, 1925: Adelaide’s The Register‘s regular book review column, The Library Table, discusses “The Cross-Word Puzzle Book” (published in London), mentioning that papers from there and America have had many references to them. With readers not yet expected to know what a crossword is, it includes a description: “It strongly resembles an acrostic, but with strange complications resulting from the use of blacked-out spaces which do not themselves carry letters, and are sometimes found to block promising word-solutions.” It also, I think humorously, describes them as “a new sort of plague sweeping through home life”. The overall book review is positive.
- January 12: A Reuters report is widely published, mentioning a “cross-word frock” in Bond Street, London, “indicating Britain’s final surrender to the cross-word puzzle craze.” (No photo is included, but this article, from February 22, has a picture of another crossword-themed outfit.) Several papers append their own comments, with one suggesting designs for cricket or horse-racing fashion ensembles and another suggesting that crosswords might even replace mah-jong.
- January 24: A (for the sake of a better term) gossip columnist in Hobart’s The Mercury discusses crosswords, despite having little idea what they are. Most of the section is an aside about swearing (‘cross’ words), though he does also consider them to be “a new development of this infantile propensity”. At this point, apparently, the ‘fever’ has reached Melbourne.
- January 31: The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate publishes an article on “the first cross word”. It has nothing to do with any recent developments but discusses the “Phaestus Disc”, considering it a word puzzle since it was (and is) undeciphered and the Greeks had “a knowledge of the acrostic”.
- Also on January 31: In an advertisement from Robertson and Mullens Ltd in The Argus, Charles Layng’s “Cross-word Puzzles” (published in Chicago in 1924) is listed in the ‘Topical Books’ section.
- February 1: Sydney’s Sunday Times becomes the second Australian newspaper to include an actual crossword, in the form of a weekly competition with prizes of cash for the first 46 correct entries, and a block of land valued at £75 (~$5600 in 2013) for the initial contest. It also includes an explanation of how crosswords work, and how to solve them, covering nearly half the front page on the topic.
- The following week, February 8: Along with their competition, the Sunday Times includes a substantial article about the history of (word) puzzles, focussing mostly on ancient Greek riddles and a sixteenth-century French book, but with nothing about crossword history specifically.
- February 13: Mount Gambier’s The Border Watch mentions crosswords in a column entitled “Interesting London Topics”. It again compares them to acrostics, and the short segment seems fairly negative. Oddly, this and several other articles describe crosswords as having been discovered, not invented – perhaps it made sense in terms of language at the time.
- February 14: The Queenslander includes both an article on recent crossword news, and an example of an English crossword, followed a week later by the solution and an example American-style crossword. The paper makes it clear that it is not offering prizes. These two are not immediately followed up with a regular crossword feature.
- February 17: The Register has an article about the crossword craze with several interesting statements, including that the first English newspaper with a crossword reached its offices about a month ago but now almost every newspaper from there includes one, and that the “cult of the cross-word” is spreading in the eastern states of Australia – but evidently not yet to Adelaide.
- February 21: Lismore’s Northern Star publishes an article (possibly unoriginal, maybe from a New Zealand paper?) about the dangers of ignorance and how modern society is terrible. A portion of the column is devoted to crosswords, and it is overwhelmingly negative: “nothing more damaging to our reputation for serious learning”, “this weird pursuit”, “there is nothing relaxing about it”… and so on.
- April 17 – skipping ahead for some closure: Adelaide’s News publishes an article from Dr H. Heaton who (not too seriously) bemoans the crossword addiction that has finally reached Adelaide, naming several local papers that now include crosswords. The article is delightfully titled “Crossworditis”.
- April 24: Adelaide’s The Advertiser publishes a typical article about the crossword craze, only of note because it also mentions several other fads, including diabolo “about ten years ago” – a variety of yo-yo that I recall enjoyed a brief but very popular fad when I was at school a little more recently, and when considering an illustration from 1812, evidently a toy that can only be tolerated for a short time about once a century.
- Finally, at least for my purposes, on July 1: Burnie’s Advocate republishes the “Crossworditis” article on the same page as a large crossword-themed advertisement, suggesting that the craze has reached Tasmania (if a little slower than the mainland). They do take some liberties to make the plagiarism less obvious – changing the author to “Traveller”, changing or removing local references, and strangely changing a neighbour’s question from “the name of a part of Japan in five letters” to “a yellow color in seven letters”.
So once the crossword craze arrived here, it spread quickly enough. But when did it arrive here?
An Anachronistic Acrostic
My first successful find was Perth’s Mirror, the edition of August 15, 1924, which mentions the Mirror’s “11th Crossword Contest”. This seemed a little odd, but at first I assumed it was the 11th contest, and they’d decided to make it a crossword because of the novelty. On the other hand, this was months before anybody else would even mention them, neither of the adjacent issues mention the competition (despite one article here talking about “last week’s crossword puzzle”), there is no attempt to explain how crosswords work or how to solve them, the paper’s numbering isn’t consistent, and – in what was a fairly obvious hint once I realised – the Mirror was a weekly paper published on Saturday but August 15, 1924 was a Friday. And not only was August 15 of 1925 a Saturday, Trove’s issue for that day was supposedly missing.
Evidently somebody made a mistake in the date when it was being assembled or printed, eventually causing the newspaper to be filed a year earlier than it should have in Trove’s system. So despite coming up first in a chronological search, this isn’t the earliest crossword. The correct date for the Mirror‘s first crossword and the beginning of their contests was March 14, 1925 – not too tardy.
To The Podium
I’ve dallied enough. According to the current Trove archive, the first newspaper in Australia to publish a recognisable crossword, and also the first to publish a regular crossword, was Sydney’s Evening News, beginning December 10, 1924. On that day they announced their crossword competition and included a trial crossword, with instructions on how to solve them, and several clues filled in. If you’re pedantic, the first entirely unsolved crossword was published by the same newspaper the following day. Many of the following issues contains more articles about their crosswords and relevant news, easily beating the rest of the newspapers at the time.
Unfortunately, if you were hoping to solve the first crossword for yourself, I have bad news – both have an unavoidable flaw. The material that was scanned into Trove for these dates and pages was of insufficient quality, and the clues for both crosswords are unreadable. With the potential exception of a trip to one of the libraries holding microfiche archives on the off-chance one is superior to the Trove scan, there’s no way to complete them – unless you’re satisfied by copying the answers in directly.
On the bright side, it seems that Australia’s crossword centenary is not for a few months yet, though I don’t imagine there’ll be as much fanfare. And while the very first are apparently unusable, the silver-medal first Sunday Times crossword is only a few weeks later, and in much more readable condition. The crossword itself is here if you want to give it a go, and the solution is in Trove if you need answers… but you’ll have to find it yourself.