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The Crossword Puzzle and the Information Society

4 November 2022

Adele Guyton, University of Leuven

In February 1922, the editor of Pearson’s Magazine wrote:

Here is a new form of puzzle in the shape of a Word Square that will provide you with a very pleasant hour’s entertainment. […] If you like this sort of thing, I shall be pleased to give you one every month, but in that case you must write and tell me. […] These new word squares are having a tremendous vogue in America just now.[1]

This was the first crossword published in the United Kingdom and was the first of many quizzes to fill Pearson’s pages during the 1920s and 30s.[2] This might seem quite innocuous – after all, puzzles are everywhere in magazines and newspapers today – but I suggest here that beyond being a “vogue” from America, the Pearson’s crossword is a popular manifestation of the information culture of European modernism.[3]

The first half of the twentieth century saw information proliferate at an unprecedented rate, and many of the intellectuals of the time were inspired to envision systems with which to coordinate it all. Fiction writers from early German science fiction pioneer Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910) to Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) grappled with the idea of a universal library,[4] and thinkers like H.G. Wells and the Belgian Paul Otlet shaped what W. Boyd Rayward (University of Illinois) calls an “information society”.[1] Otlet, for instance, created what was intended to be a universal library catalogue called the Mundaneum, located south of Brussels, which contained 16 million cards by 1930. Projects like Otlet’s were explicitly utopian, envisioning universal information systems as the means to a rational, peaceful, and global government. Rayward states that in this sense, they are essentially modernist.[5]

The crossword is certainly a humble subject to investigate in comparison to these utopian visions, but modernism itself did not exist in a vacuum. Here, I look at the crossword puzzle and another “knowledge” feature that appeared simultaneously in Pearson’s Magazine as popular – and eventually collaborative – ways of coordinating and understanding the glut of information experienced by all areas of society in the early 20th century.

In March of 1922, the second word square appeared, and with it another notice in the editorial that mainly emphasised the entertainment value of the puzzle: ‘[…] a new Word Square, which, if you start it, will make you forget all unpleasant things such as business worries, rates, taxes, and similar modern plagues’.[6] By May and June of 1922, though, as reader responses came in, the word square had become a collaborative project between editor and readers, and self-education became part of the word square’s narrative.

Just in case I should be unable to carry on with good ones myself, some readers have gone to the trouble of working out new squares themselves. […] I am using one reader’s word square this month and he gets a guinea as reward for his labour.[7]

This Month’s Word Square. If you have not, as yet, attempted to solve word squares, try this one. They interest, they teach, and they amuse![8]

This remains the rhetoric about word squares and quizzes in general in Pearson’s for the rest of its run: they will entertain but also educate. In Pearson’s and other magazines founded in the late Victorian period generally, this is a familiar combination. What intrigues me about the manifestation of education in Pearson’s’ crossword advertisements within the information society of 1922 is that, first, the education that is occurring is not unidirectional: readers have become contributors. Second, this education does not take the shape of long-form articles, as in most earlier Pearson’s informative features, but has become a miscellany of general knowledge reminiscent of another popular early 20th century genre, the encyclopaedia. The crossword can be seen as a mode of delineating and canonising which knowledge is considered important for – and by – the working- and middle-class readership of Pearson’s Magazine.[9]

The existence of a collaborative, popular engagement with the information society in the Pearson’s of 1922 is further indicated by another recurring feature called “The World Goes Marching On”. This two-page spread appeared monthly from May 1922 into the 1930s, featuring photos of advances in science and technology with brief captions. That May, even as the Word Square was becoming collaborative, the editor called for reader contributions to “The World Goes Marching On”. Significantly, readers’ submissions are framed as a valuable addition to expert contributions:

Most of the learned societies in this country have promised to assist me […]. But I don’t want to miss anything, so if any of my readers at home or abroad happen to come into touch with new developments […] I shall be delighted to hear from them.[10]

Whether readers in fact ended up contributing photos (or very many crosswords) is almost beside the point. The editor of a magazine with a circulation probably in the hundreds of thousands saw it as a selling point to offer his readers the opportunity to contribute to the growing canon of twentieth century knowledge, and presented this public information project as sufficiently important and popular for it to continue throughout the following decades.[11] Together, the Word Square and “The World Goes Marching On” seem to show that beyond large and well-funded projects like the Mundaneum, there seems to have been an appetite for adding to collective knowledge on many levels of society in the year 1922. This further suggests a place for popular puzzles and quizzes in the history of the knowledge and science of the time.


Adele Guyton is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leuven working on British and German popular fiction in the modernist period and its relationship to astronomy. Her work is part of the project Literary Knowledge (1890-1950) at the MDRN lab.


Image credit: A crossword fanatic ringing up a doctor in the middle of the night to find the answer to a clue. Reproduction of a drawing after D.L. Ghilchilp, 1925. © Wellcome Trust, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Sources

[1] ‘A Number of Things’, Pearson’s Magazine, February 1922, 184.

[2] Ben Whitelaw and Owen Jones, ‘A Brief History of The Times Crossword’, The Times (London, 9 March 2014), Digital edition, <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/a-brief-history-of-the-times-crossword-67p8rsntn6r&gt; [accessed 2 September 2022].

[3] For work on the later cryptic crossword, which debuted in Westminster Gazette in 1925, as related to Anglophone high modernism, see Jackson, Roddy Howland, ‘Beastly Clues: T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword’, The Public Domain Review, 12 January 2022. <https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/beastly-clues/&gt; [accessed 20 January 2022]

[4] Erik Born, ‘Some Omissions in the Universal Library: Kurd Lasswitz and the Emergence of Science Fiction’, Monatshefte, 110.4 (2018), 529–51 (pp. 544–45).

[5] Rayward, p. 12.

[6] ‘A Number of Things’, Pearson’s Magazine, March 1922, 274.

[7] ‘A Number of Things’, Pearson’s Magazine, May 1922, 368.

[8] ‘Word Square No. 5’, Pearson’s Magazine, June 1922, 507.

[9] For notes on knowledge canonisation, see Ben Tausig, The Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now (Race Point Publishing, 2013), pp. 10–15.

[10] ‘A Number of Things’.

[11] The exact circulation of Pearson’s Magazine in the 1920s is unknown, but at the turn of the century it lay between two and four-hundred thousand, with actual readership much higher. See Alison Hedley, ‘Data Visualization and Population Politics in Pearson’s Magazine, 1896–1902’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 23.3 (2018), 421–41 (pp. 426–27) <https://doi.org/10.1093/jvcult/vcy036&gt;.

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