May 1, 1924: From snaps to heartbreakers

May 1, 1924: From snaps to heartbreakers

As the month of May 1924 began, Dick Simon and Max Schuster (still doing business as the Plaza Publishing Company) had something to crow about. The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, their dubious first publishing venture, was a runaway success and could already be dubbed a best-seller. Here is the ad for the book that ran in Vermont's Burlington Free Press on the first of May.

Here's just what you've been waiting for – a 'grand and glorious' opportunity to do the best puzzles to your heart's content in
Only $1.35. Containing 50 new, never-before-published Cross-Word Puzzles that are wonders! From 'snaps' to heart-breakers. Pencil and eraser attached. The Cross-Word Puzzle Book is out only one month and it's already a "best seller!" Answers FREE with book. Money back if not satisfied. Send check or money order to Dept. G.
37 West 57th Street New York

While the ad copy said the book had been out "only one month," it was actually more impressive than that: the publication date was April 10, just three weeks earlier. (They placed the same ad in the Buffalo Times and Pittsburgh Post on May 11, so it makes sense that they didn't want to be too precise with the date.) This collection of puzzles "from 'snaps' to heart-breakers" had clearly found an immediate audience.

It helped that newspapers like the Burlington Free Press had already cultivated that audience. While the World and Herald Tribune were battling for crossword supremacy in New York City, the puzzle was making inroads elsewhere. As we previously noted, the Boston Globe was already running three crosswords a week at the time and building up its own puzzling community. The Free Press extended the crossword's reach to another part of New England.

As with the Boston Globe, the puzzle page of the Free Press contained ads for both Simon & Schuster's book and Webster's New International Dictionary from G. & C. Merriam. The Merriam marketers of Springfield, Mass. shrewdly localized their advertising, offering "free pocket maps if you name The Burlington Free Press" when placing your dictionary order.

The weekly crossword running in the Free Press at the time didn't come from the World, the Herald Tribune, or the Globe, but from another source: Bell Syndicate. The syndicate's founder, John Neville Wheeler, had hopped on the crossword craze early, bringing puzzles to newspapers like the Indianapolis Star in February 1924, two months before The Cross Word Puzzle Book kicked off the craze in earnest.

At least early on, Bell Syndicate got creative with the inking of black squares. Here's what the first puzzles in the Indianapolis Star looked like.

By the time the Free Press picked up the Bell Syndicate puzzle on Mar. 13, the crossword just had boring old solid black squares. As the year progressed, other newspapers would start syndicating Bell crosswords, notably the Los Angeles Times.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves! We have lots to look forward to in the month of May 1924, including the very first crossword convention, the first sniffy takedown of crosswords in the New York Times, and an early crossword-themed comic strip. Stay tuned for more from your Crossword Craze correspondents.