Blip: The Crossword Craze

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Illustration: Simca

Once, in the early 1960s, there was as huge craze in France to do crossword puzzles, in a fiercely competitive context. It got to the point that people would drive to remote locations and have themselves timed and photographed doing the puzzles by teams of accredited timers and puzzle documenters. The craze was so bad that the birth rate dropped because everyone was doing crosswords, and the government had to step in and make puzzles illegal for nearly a decade.

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There were pros and cons to the puzzle craze. My great uncle Emile (of the family branch that did not emigrate to the U.S.) was a Czechman living in France, and fought with the French Resistance in WWII. Crossword puzzles were a popular distraction during the war, but also an important means of communication amongst the resistance.

After the war, crossword puzzles and travel helped calm the nerves of those, like great uncle Emile, who suffered from what we now call PTSD. During the puzzle ban, Emile smuggled in crosswords and other puzzles from Bohemia, the U.S., and Andorra. He made a modest living doing so, and was able to buy a few rental properties across France from his black market income. When he passed away, everyone in his will was left a stack of crosswords and other puzzles, board games and books.