May 11, 1924: Crosswords invade the newspaper funnies

May 11, 1924: Crosswords invade the newspaper funnies

The crossword craze of the mid-1920s infiltrated all aspects of popular culture, and that included the realm of newspaper comics. One hundred years ago today, cartoonist and humorist Clare Briggs dedicated a full-color Sunday page to a crossword-solving exchange between the characters Joe and Vi, the titular stars of his strip Mr. and Mrs.

The Omaha Morning Bee comic section, Clare Briggs, "Mr. and Mrs.," May 11, 1924

Clare A. Briggs (1875–1930) was a celebrity cartoonist pioneer with his relatable and humorous scenarios of everyday Americans. He earned early success after the William Randolph Hearst media empire hired him to draw cartoons for Chicago newspapers, including his short-lived 1903-1904 strip A. Piker Clerk, often described as the first daily strip to ever use regular continuity as well as a horizontally-sequenced layout. Briggs' success led him to finish his career with the New York Tribune (later merged as the New York Herald Tribune) where he remained until his premature death after contracting pneumonia during a hospital stay. Briggs drew a number of nationally syndicated strips including When a Feller Needs a Friend, Ain't It a Grand and Glorious Feeling?, The Days of Real Sport, and the aforementioned Mr. and Mrs., which continued for decades by other hands after his death.

A real life Mr. and Mrs.: Cartoonist Clare Briggs and his wife Ruth Owen Briggs on the S.S. Majestic, arriving back home to New York after spending a summer vacation in Europe, Nov. 15, 1922

Briggs was so successful he augmented his earnings as a lecturer, touring on the vaudeville circuit, and with his own movie studio, producing a series of 1919 comedy shorts for Paramount Pictures. His Mr. and Mrs. strip even had its own radio series on CBS from 1929 to 1931.

Briggs may have still had his cinematic experience on the mind when he created his Movie of a Man newspaper strip series, perhaps imagining each panel as a frame or scene. While the Mr. and Mrs. strip above would be the first of many that Briggs would create during the 1924 crossword craze, this was predated by a Movie of a Man strip from October 1922 depicting a man solving a crossword.

New York Tribune, Clare Briggs, “Movie of a Man Doing the Cross-Word Puzzle,” Oct. 5, 1922

But the earliest example we've found of crosswords in newspaper comics appeared in the previous month, courtesy of cartoonist Fontaine Fox.

Montreal Star, Fontaine Fox, “The Cross-Word Puzzle," Sept. 15, 1922

Fontaine Talbot Fox, Jr. (1884–1964) was best known for his Toonerville Folks (often titled by newspapers Toonerville Trolley) daily panel, a unique depiction of a trolley in a small town of a large cast of quirky and outlandish characters. Starting in 1913, Toonerville Folks ran nationally until Fox's retirement in 1955. He was able to gain all rights to the panel, a rarity in those days.

Cartoonist Fontaine Fox

Fox did very well financially merchandising books and toys from Toonerville. It was popular enough to have spawned a series of live action comedies in the early 1920s, three 1936 Van Beuren Studios animated cartoons, and a series of over 55 low budget shorts starring Toonerville character Mickey McGuire as played by young star Joe Yule Jr. The series was so successful Yule changed his name to Mickey McGuire. After the series ended and the actor continued using the name, Fox had to go to court to prove that he owned the copyright to Mickey McGuire, leading the actor to change his name one last time to Mickey Rooney.

Toonerville Folks was honored in the 1995 Comic Strip Classics series of U.S. postage stamps, and appeared on PBS as a segment in the 1977 animated shorts collection Simple Gifts. Friz Freleng is said to have partially based the behavior of Looney Tunes character Yosemite Sam on the Toonerville Folks character Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang. Fox died at the age of 80 in Greenwich in 1964, refusing to pass his panel to another cartoonist.

As a bonus feature, enjoy this very brief 1913 clip of popular newspaper cartoonists drawing in action, including Fox and Briggs at the end.