Puzzles That Challenged Our Ancestors

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to find puzzles that challenged our ancestors – and provides the answers so that you can play and see if you’re correct! Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

I’m starting to realize there is a link between genealogy and puzzle solving, and it turns out I’m not alone. This article from a 1938 Texas newspaper reports that genealogy research is like solving a crossword puzzle.

So in the spirit of genealogical puzzle solving, I decided to query GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see what puzzle solving was all about in the past.

An article about genealogy and crossword puzzles, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 23 October 1938
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 23 October 1938, section II, page 2

First Crossword Puzzles

If you only browse the Web, you’d believe that crossword puzzle solving originated with Arthur Wynne of Liverpool when he published his grid-like puzzle on 21 December 1913. He didn’t copyright it, so as the fad took over the world it was copied far and wide.

An article about Arthur Wynne and crossword puzzles, Repository newspaper article 29 November 1924
Repository (Canton, Ohio), 29 November 1924, page 11

However, the truth is that crossword puzzles started thousands of years earlier.

Ancient Puzzles

Evidence of ancient puzzles starts from around 2000 B.C. with the Phaistos Disc from a Minoan palace in Crete, discovered in 1908.

Photo: Phaistos Disc, side A
Photo: Phaistos Disc, side A. Credit: PRA; Wikimedia Commons.

Made out of fired clay, the puzzle contains a spiral of stamped symbols. Some argue that it was not a word puzzle, but a type of movable type. See the Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc

An article about the Phaistos Disc from ancient Crete, Tampa Tribune newspaper article 2 December 1924
Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 2 December 1924, page 2

19th Century Puzzles

During the 19th century, some newspapers published activity pages with varying types of word puzzles.

Many are quite different from what challenges us today. In addition to anagrams, you’ll find acrostics and other types of word puzzles.

In this 1872 New Hampshire newspaper article, a series of puzzles were published – a regular feature of the newspaper. Readers would submit their answers by mail and after two weeks, the correct answers would be published. Here we present two of these puzzles, with the answers following. Have fun challenging yourself as your ancestors did!

Puzzle No. 528:

A puzzle, Mirror and Farmer newspaper article 5 October 1872
Mirror and Farmer (Manchester, New Hampshire), 5 October 1872, page 6

Answer to Puzzle No. 528:

Answer to a puzzle, Mirror and Farmer newspaper article 19 October 1872
Mirror and Farmer (Manchester, New Hampshire), 19 October 1872, page 6

Puzzle No. 529:

A puzzle, Mirror and Farmer newspaper article 5 October 1872
Mirror and Farmer (Manchester, New Hampshire), 5 October 1872, page 6

Answer to Puzzle No. 529:

Answer to a puzzle, Mirror and Farmer newspaper article 19 October 1872
Mirror and Farmer (Manchester, New Hampshire), 19 October 1872, page 6

Other newspapers around the country also published puzzles to challenge their readers. For example, this 1876 Illinois newspaper article printed another type of puzzle: the word square, in which the answers spell the same thing horizontally and vertically.

Puzzle No. 241:

A puzzle, Pomeroy’s Democrat newspaper article 2 September 1876
Pomeroy’s Democrat (Chicago, Illinois), 2 September 1876, page 7

Answer to Puzzle No. 241:

Answer to a puzzle, Pomeroy’s Democrat newspaper article 16 September 1876
Pomeroy’s Democrat (Chicago, Illinois), 16 September 1876, page 7

If you’re looking for an intermission in your genealogy day, search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for brain teasers. There are many more than the few shown in this article!

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