Obscurity of the Day: Cross Word Charlie

The crossword puzzle was invented by Arthur Wynne, debuting in the New York World in 1913. It wasn’t the most demanding brainteaser ever (a sample clue — “the plural of is”) but it found an appreciative audience. The crossword craze was a slow builder, really taking off in the 20s, as did all sorts of diversions that helped people cope with the lack of readily accessible booze.

In 1924 the New York Times derided crossword puzzles as “a primitive form of mental exercise” and went on to predict that the public would quickly tire of them. But even that bastion of sane and sober journalism finally waved the white flag, and the toughest crossword of them all debuted in the Sunday Times on February 15 1942. Now if only they’d come to their senses and add a comics section they’d really have something.

A certain species of newspaper comic strip creators are always on the lookout for new trends that they can ride to syndication success. Here’s a good example, Art Helfant’s Cross Word Charlie. Created purely in response to the popularity of crosswords, it stands along strips about radios, bridge, manga, even mullets, subjects that momentarily cross the public’s fancy. Like most of these cash-in projects, the strip was a pretty miserable effort, with Helfant taking the most obvious plotline (a guy who’s crazy for crosswords) and for some reason often aping Rube Goldberg’s style (his own, in my humble opinion, was better — the first strip is more in Helfant’s native style).

The strip was syndicated by the P.C. Eastment Syndicate. Eastment had been in charge of the McClure Syndicate in the teens and apparently had struck out on his own come the 1920s. The syndicate seems to have concentrated mostly on fiction, also an Eastment specialty at McClure. Cross Word Charlie seems to have been their only foray into comic strips, and it may have been their death rattle, because it’s the last newspaper feature I can find bearing their copyright. The longest run of Cross Word Charlie I’ve been able to find is in the Boston Globe where it appeared from December 29 1924 to January 31 1925.

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the samples of this rare strip.

4 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Cross Word Charlie

  1. Just for the record, the New York Times crossword isn’t necessarily the toughest one out there, but people seem to think it is (especially the larger sized Sunday one). The daily puzzles grow in difficulty during the week so that Monday is pretty easy but Friday and Saturday can get quite tough. The Sunday puzzle is large, but more Wed-Thu in difficulty.

    Thanks for bringing this strip to light. It never occurred to me that with all the other crossword merchandising going around back then that someone would try to capitalize on it on the comics page.

  2. Well, those NYT Sunday puzzles certainly kick my butt but I rarely get to do them and you really have to do them regularly to get into the zen of their clues. So do any newspaper syndicates distribute a harder x-word puzzle, or are these harder puzzles you mentioned distributed some other way?


  3. You are correct that you need to solve pretty regularly to get the crosswordese down, as well as the puzzle author and editor’s styles. A lot of people think that if you’re smart you can just pick up a crossword and knock it out in no time, but you’d be surprised: it takes a lot of practice.

    As far as syndicated puzzles go, the Saturday Creators Syndicate puzzle (this is the Long Island Newsday puzzle edited by Stanley Newman) “Staruday Stumper” is one of the toughest regular ones out there.

    Not syndicated, but also tough, is the Friday puzzle in the New York Sun, excellently edited by Peter Gordon.

    You can get these and plenty of other crosswords regularly for free on the web. Just search for “Will Johnston’s Puzzle Pointers” and you’ll find a page he maintains that lists all of them.

    As for me, I’m off to the Boston Public Library tomorrow to look for the rest of those Cross Word Charlies!

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