“Puzzle fiends”: the crossword craze in New Zealand

In the mid-1920s a craze hit the world which was described as a “mania,” “cult,” and “epidemic,” (Evening Star, 7 February 1925) and which had an impact on social activities, reading habits, films, music, and even fashion: the craze for crossword puzzles.

The first known crossword was created by Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, and was published in the Sunday newspaper New York World on 21 December 1913. You can try your hand at the world’s first crossword here. Other American and British newspapers began to publish crosswords in the early 1920s. Simon & Schuster had the bright idea in 1924 to publish a book of crosswords; the result was a mania which swept the nation and then the globe. By February 1925, the original crossword puzzle book had already sold 600,000 copies (New Zealand Herald, 5 February 1925).

Puzzle mania inspired hit songs such as Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me, Cross Word Puzzle Blues, and Since Ma’s Gone Crazy Over Cross Word Puzzles. American railway companies put dictionaries on their trains for the use of crossword-mad commuters. People solved crosswords on ferries, at home, at work, and at parties. They were even blamed for breaking up homes: it was claimed that in America “there have been reports of police magistrates sternly rationing addicts to three puzzles a day, with an alternative of ten days in the workhouse, because wives have complained that their misguided spouses have been neglecting the support of their families.” (Poverty Bay Herald, 21 February 1925).

Crossword, Auckland Star, 17 January 1925.

Solution, Auckland Star, 24 January 1925. 

The craze hit New Zealand in early 1925. The Auckland Star was the first local newspaper to publish a puzzle, on the 17th January, along with an explanation for readers on how to do it. The solution was published the following Saturday.

Other papers soon followed suit. The Manawatu Times assured readers in February that it would be introducing a crossword section, “in conformity with its policy of incorporating the latest and best features procurable in the newspaper world.” (Manawatu Times, 21 February 1925). The Otago Daily Times likewise published instructions for the new amusement, and a warning: “The thing seems so easy that it is difficult to resist the temptation to try ones’ hand—or rather one’s head. Ere long a snag is reached, and the help of another member of the family is asked; soon the entire household is involved, and a dictionary is brought into requisition.” (Otago Daily Times, 24 January 1925).

Cross-word puzzles, New Zealand Herald, 11 May 1925

By the middle of May, the New Zealand Herald reported that “the cross-word puzzle ‘craze’ or ‘mania,’ as some prefer to call it, has taken a firm hold of Auckland.” (New Zealand Herald, 11 May 1925).

Two Auckland theatres offered free tickets for the correct solution to a series of puzzles and had 500 responses. Other businesses and newspapers offered competitions with cash prizes, which led some to question the legality of crosswords (Poverty Bay Herald, 26 January 1926) and whether they might be considered gambling, as they were declared in South Australia (Evening Post, 18 June 1925).

Nevertheless, as the Herald related, “The vogue of the cross-word is now apparently in full swing. One may see enthusiasts at their self-appointed tasks on nearly every tram […] One young  man who was accustomed to solving knotty problems on his way home from work is said to have become so engrossed in a puzzle that he failed to notice the fact, when his tram reached the terminus. When he did look round triumphantly, on the completion of his task, he found that he was repassing the front of his office in Queen Street.” It was not only men entranced by the new fad; one father complained, “I never see the Herald Supplement nowadays. The girls grab it to do the puzzles.” (New Zealand Herald, 11 May 1925)

The Herald writer predicted that the craze would fizzle out by the end of winter, when people’s attention would turn to the “counter attractions of an Auckland summer […] Of course it is possible to solve the puzzles in the open air. But can one imagine anyone sitting on the beach and working out a cross-word puzzle?”

However, this was just the beginning!

Advertisement for Milne & Choyce, Auckland Star, 7 April 1925.

Sales of puzzle books soared, along with demand for dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopaedias. One large book-selling establishment in Auckland was reported to have completely sold out of puzzle books (New Zealand Herald, 11 May 1925), and library patronage suddenly increased. Reports from overseas claimed that  “many minor free libraries have removed their dictionaries from the shelves in consequence of the damage done by cross-word puzzle searchers, and the British Museum has now banned admittance to all such people,” (King Country Chronicle, 21 February 1925), while in the Los Angeles public library, high demand meant that dictionaries were only allowed to be used for five minutes at a time (New Zealand Herald, 7 March 1925). London museum staff were somewhat bemused by the sudden increase in visits and queries by crossword clue hunters. (Manawatu Times, 3 April 1925).

The Auckland Public Library published statistics in January 1927 showing the increased numbers in 1925 compared to 1926; according to Chief Librarian Mr Barr, this was “accounted for by the fact that in 1925 abnormal use was made of the library by persons interested in crossword puzzle competitions.” (Evening Post, 7 January 1927).

Despite some mockery of the new craze, people speculated that at least it was better for the intellect of the nation than some other more recent fads. Crossword puzzles may be “the new lunacy,” says one article in the Evening Star, but it cannot be denied that “they are teaching lots of persons to spell who previously had only sketchy ideas on the subject.” (Evening Star, 4 December 1924).

Cartoon, Auckland Weekly News, 5 February 1925, originally from London Punch. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19250205-49-5.

Even more intellectually challenging than solving crosswords was the activity of designing original puzzles. The rules of design were far stricter than they are now; a crossword was supposed to be exactly symmetrical, with only one in six squares blacked out, and words interlocking both ways (Timaru Herald, 16 January 1925). A cartoon reproduced in the Auckland Weekly News shows a fashionable woman sitting amongst rolls of black and white square patterned lino; “Oh, just send one sample of each,” she instructs the poor shop assistant, “My husband finds they give him such good ideas for his cross-word puzzles.”

A puzzle designed by a local reader and sent into the New Zealand Herald was much criticised: apart from having vague clues, not being perfectly symmetrical, containing too many black squares and two-letter words, it employed words from languages other than English, including the Māori words for ‘before’ (mua) and ‘behold’ (nā) which were “not in common English use.” (New Zealand Herald, 9 April 1925) (Incidentally, when libraries reopen, you might want to test out your reo skills with this book of fifty-six Māori crosswords!)

The much-criticised design. “Cross-word puzzles,” New Zealand Herald, 8 April 1925. 

The crossword craze had an impact on popular culture in New Zealand, and permeated social events up and down the country. The Evening Post reported that “Crossword teas are now popular,” and joked that “anybody who can successfully juggle with a cup of tea, a cream-cake, and a dictionary deserves a prize.” (New Zealand Herald, 8 April 1925). Women even made checkerboard sandwiches to serve, which “can just as well be called crossword sandwiches to-day, if one is given to that sort of play, and especially if one wants to give a crossword party.” These were constructed from slices of white and dark brown bread, layered together with butter, cut and “put together in such a way that a white block will alternate with a brown one, making a checkerboard appearance.” (Stratford Evening Post, 7 December 1925)

“Page 9 Advertisements Column 3,” Evening Post, 30 May 1925. 

The first crossword dance in New Zealand was held in Abel Smith Street, Wellington, on the 30th May 1925. At these events, already popular overseas, couples had to try and solve the crossword clues without stopping dancing! An illustration by Achille Beltrame on the cover of the Italian Domenica del Corriere shows a ballroom scene of that same kind:

Achille Beltrame, cover of La Domenica del Corriere, 15 February 1926.

Crossword mania even made its way into fashion. The Waikato Daily Times reported the London trends in January 1925: “The first cross-word frock appeared on Bond Street yesterday, indicating Britain's final surrender to the crossword puzzle craze. The familiar black and white squares, arranged in fantastic groupings, adorned the frock, the ends of the scarf, the front of the small felt hat, and the sides of the new fashionable envelope-shaped handbag. Cross-word jumpers are also appearing daily.” (Waikato Times, 12 January 1925). New Zealanders did not take the fashion to quite such extremes, but the influence of the crossword was nevertheless felt. Novelty crossword puzzle handkerchiefs were advertised throughout 1925 and 1926:

“Page 6 Advertisements Column 2,” Nelson Evening Mail, 13 May 1925

Readers of the Poverty Bay Herald were informed, somewhat wryly, that “crossword puzzles are said to be responsible for the return to favour of check patterns for both men and women’s garments. The 'horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ effects are so pronounced that they can be interpreted without consulting a dictionary.” (Poverty Bay Herald, 14 March 1925). Most New Zealand women would have sewn their own clothes, or had them made by a dressmaker, rather than bought them ready-made. Crossword patterned fabrics were advertised for children’s clothes, especially for making little girls’ dresses (Timaru Herald, 24 September 1925), and crossword pattern rompers were likewise popular even through until 1927 (Gisborne Times, 3 February 1926). Fabrics for women’s clothes were also advertised, though not as frequently.

Advertisement for Scotts Drapers and Clothiers, Karangahape Road, Auckland. New Zealand Herald, 24 February 1926.

Although plenty of children and adults dressed up as “crossword puzzles” for costume parties and dances over the winter of 1925 (Press, 13 July 1925) New Zealanders mostly limited the faddish pattern to accessories and trimmings in their daily dress, such as around the lapels and pockets of this coat design from the Waikato Times:

“A smart effect is obtained by the check trimming which relieves this handsome coat of tan velour cloth,”. Waikato Times, 21 May 1927.

These tennis dresses advertised by Beath & Co., Christchurch, show the popularity of checks that season; in fact, the dress on the left is described specifically as “finished with a cross-word puzzle border.”

Tennis frocks, “Page 11 Advertisements Column 3”. Press, 27 October 1925.

Compare to this tennis dress in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Made in 1926, it is trimmed with green linen appliqué in in a chequered pattern very reminiscent of a crossword design.

Tennis dress, made by Miss Hepburne Scott, 1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum

By 1927 the mania in New Zealand was fading. In March of that year, a writer in the Auckland Star noted that “the crossword puzzle craze has abated,” although “even today, when interest in it has languished, there are signs of the “puzzle fiends’” energy to be found in the reading department at the Wellesley Street institution.” (Auckland Star, 29 March 1927). Nearly a century later, newspapers continue to publish crosswords daily, and “puzzle fiends” are still found puzzling in our public libraries. Those who count themselves in that number will rejoice in the gradual reopening of libraries over the next few weeks, and in the meantime may enjoy perusing the links below to online crosswords and puzzle resources.

Author: Harriet Rogers, Heritage Collections


B.J. Holmes, Pocket crossword dictionary, A. & C. Black, 2005.

David Astle, Cluetopia: The story of 100 years of the crossword, Allen & Unwin, 2013.

Oxford English Dictionary Online

Use advanced search to help solve word puzzles:
Look on the bottom right of the advanced search screen for a search box titled Restrict to entry letter or range. Type in the letters you have in the word separated by asterisks (*). Click the search button, and results are displayed - your answer should be among the them.
Access through Auckland Libraries


Get instant online access to today's eMagazines from around the world in full colour, full-page format. Just like reading the print edition, you can browse articles and other key content, such as pictures, advertisements, classifieds, comics, crossword puzzles and notices.


Daily crosswords and other puzzles.

L.A. Times

Games sections for crosswords and more.

New York Times

Crosswords and puzzles, some free, some subscription.

The Guardian

Regular and cryptic crosswords


Crosswords and more.