Newspaper Crossword Puzzles & More Games Our Ancestors Played

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows some crossword puzzles and other games from old newspapers, giving a glimpse into the times our ancestors lived in—and, potentially, providing genealogy help because some of the names and addresses of contest winners were published in the newspaper.

Newspapers provide so much more than the news. Sure, there are the obituaries, legal notices, and vital record announcements that are so valuable to family historians. And as genealogists we all know the value of newspaper advertisements, social pages, and shipping news.

But there are also the bits that we don’t normally consider having historical or genealogical value. It’s important to remember that all parts of the newspaper contain not only a snapshot of our ancestor’s time—but even the possibility of names and information appearing in places in the newspaper you wouldn’t expect. One section that may not seem important is that containing games and puzzles.

Enter Last Name










Today, everyone is glued to their smartphones playing online games individually or with friends. Most likely you know someone who passes time playing Angry Birds, Candy Crush or Words with Friends. For our nineteenth and twentieth century ancestor, participating in a newspaper game or puzzle might have resulted in their name, and perhaps even address, being published.

Lone Ranger’s Nephew’s Horse: the Crossword

Although not the only type of puzzle found in the newspaper, crossword puzzles are probably the one we are most familiar with. The first crossword puzzle, which looks slightly different than the crosswords of today, appeared in the New York World in 1913. By the end of the 1920s, crosswords were found in newspapers nationwide.* While we might most associate the New York Times with newspaper crosswords, they actually didn’t print their first puzzle until 1942.**

Here’s an early crossword puzzle, from a 1915 Cleveland newspaper.

crossword puzzle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 January 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 January 1915, page 5

Crosswords were strategically placed in the newspaper, often next to advertisements. This placement forced readers to see advertisements, and potentially generate revenue for advertisers and the newspaper, as they searched for their beloved puzzle.***

It’s probably no surprise to learn that puzzles, and clues to those puzzles, change over time and reflect current events. According to the book Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig, puzzle clues from the World War II era included geography questions and foreign currencies. In some cases, puzzles found in the newspaper focused on current events, as in this 1945 Military Maze which includes military titles held by men who would be marching in World War I Armistice Day parades.

word puzzle, San Diego Union newspaper article 11 November 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 11 November 1945, page 3

Puzzle Contests

Working a puzzle isn’t just a solitary pursuit. In some cases the puzzle was also a contest. Newspaper contests provided cash prizes to children and adults.

puzzle contest, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 October 1910

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 October 1910, page 8

In some cases prize award announcements might include names and addresses of winners, as does this 1924 Dallas newspaper article announcing that Miss Hazel Cobb, living at 5201 Live Oak Street in Dallas, had won first prize due to her correct answers.

Dallas Woman (Hazel Cobb) Wins Crossword Puzzle Prize, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 October 1924

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 October 1924, page 1

Children and Their Puzzles

Puzzle pages could also be found on newspaper pages dedicated to children. Marketing to kids has always been a successful advertising tactic, and with a page dedicated to kids that includes their names, social activities, games and jokes, the paper guaranteed itself revenue. This Massachusetts Boys and Girls Page from 1944 is a great example of what newspapers offered their child readers, including puzzles, riddles, stories, quizzes and scientific facts. One of the most interesting pieces on the page is the Defense Blunder which shows a cartoon of two women talking in the forest. Children are asked to name the mistake the women are making—keeping in mind that World War II was going on at the time. The answer reminds the children that forest saboteurs might be hiding listening for information, and they may be trying to set fire to precious timber/lumber supplies.

The Boys and Girls Page, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 March 1944

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 March 1944, page 42

What newspaper games did your ancestors play? Better yet, what prize did they win by participating in newspaper games and contests?

Do you love solving crossword puzzles like your ancestors? Search the newspaper archives to find thousands of printable crosswords to have fun sharpening your wordsmith skills.

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* American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Brief History of Crossword Puzzles, http://www.crosswordtournament.com/more/wynne.html. Accessed 26 August 2014.
** About.com 20th century History. The first Crossword Puzzle. http://history1900s.about.com/od/1910s/qt/firstcrossword.htm. Accessed 26 August 2014.
*** Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig. p. 13.

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Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena addresses the problem that it’s often hard to find information about our ancestors when they were children. One solution? Look for their participation in fashion and coloring paper doll contests run by newspapers.

Previously in my article “What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children” I wrote about places to find children’s names in newspapers. I commented on how as researchers we genealogists often ignore the childhood of our ancestors because children did not generate the quantity of records that adults left behind.

The wonderful thing about newspapers is that they are the great equalizer: they record the stories of everyone whether rich or poor, young or old. While there can be no doubt that some people get more articles written about them than others, you can find ancestors’ names in all sorts of places in the newspaper—even in something as unexpected as a paper doll contest.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery

It seems that today very few children read newspapers—or for that matter very few adults. But it wasn’t too long ago that children read the newspaper often, at the very least to check out the comics page, enter contests, and even acquire new toys to play with. One toy that could be found in the Sunday newspaper was paper dolls. According to the OPDAG (The Original Paper Doll Artists Guild) article “History of Paper Dolls” by Judy M. Johnson, the Boston Herald was printing newspaper paper dolls as early as the 1890s. Additional wardrobes for those paper dolls could be found in subsequent issues of the newspaper, adding to the child’s paper doll collection. During the Depression years, children could find many different newspaper paper dolls, most based on their favorite comics including “Boots and Millie” and “Jane Arden.”

Not only would the comic strip authors themselves provide dolls and wardrobes in the Sunday papers, they would solicit contributions from readers. One comic strip that encouraged readers to design outfits was “Tillie the Toiler.” Tillie, drawn by Russ Westover, ran in newspapers from 1921 to 1959. Tillie toiled at her jobs as a stenographer, secretary and model. Her life as a single working girl was the focus of the strip and the character of Tillie was also featured in a couple of movies.

Here’s a call to the young readers of “Tillie the Toiler” to submit designs for the Fashion Parade.

Dresses for Tillie! Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 January 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 January 1933, page 1

I’m always on the lookout for unusual places to find ancestors’ names. Searching through those newspaper paper doll fashion contests can yield the names of the winners; those people chosen to have their doll and/or wardrobe published. Not only are the contest winners’ names and cities printed but sometimes even street addresses and, occasionally, the winners’ relationships to other budding fashionistas—such as in this example, where friends Zelene Des Champs and Ann Wolff from South Carolina submitted entries together.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: from the author’s collection

Girls were not the only ones who submitted entries; boys and even married women from the United States and Canada submitted their doll and fashion drawings.

Aside from designing an outfit and having their name printed in the newspaper, children could also enter coloring contests featuring their favorite comic characters. In this 1933 newspaper article, Shirley Jean French is congratulated on her winning entry by “Tillie the Toiler” cartoonist Russ Westover. According to the 1930 U.S. census Shirley was 12 years old when she won the first-prize award. Of Shirley’s entry, Westover wrote that “Tillie has never been better dressed.”

winner of "Tillie the Toiler" coloring contest, San Diego Union newspaper article 27 August 1933

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 27 August 1933, page 11

While today’s American children may not be as engaged with newspapers as previous generations, for their grandparents and great-grandparents the Sunday comics page was not just a place to get a few laughs—it may have been a place to leave their mark on the world.

Genealogy Tip: Examine every part of a newspaper when doing your family history searches. You never know where a long-sought ancestor’s name might turn up—an obscure ad, a paper doll contest, a family recipe—providing a little more detail to help bring that name on your family tree to life.