One man's puzzling pursuit: A monument to mind games

For the Record

February 01, 2004|By Christina Santucci | Christina Santucci,Sun Staff

Buried under an avalanche of headlines about arctic temperatures and political primaries last week, most of us probably missed the news that, once again, National Puzzle Day had arrived.

The little-known day has been celebrated, sort of, each Jan. 29 since its creation, a date equally little known. The legend goes that it was begun by a puzzle enthusiast who wished others to celebrate her birthday. Over time, it's been adopted mainly by schoolteachers in search of fun teaching tools and shrewd puzzle corporations seeking product coverage.

Even "gamers," people who compete in national crossword contests, don't pay tribute to Puzzle Day, Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle editor, said in a recent interview.

But if Chick Elum of Port Clinton, Ohio, has his way, this puzzling day may finally get the attention at least he thinks it deserves -- at his planned National Puzzle Museum.

Son of Charles J. Elum, the inventor of the word-search puzzle, Elum says he has always had an interest in puzzles as a "personal contest between the puzzle constructor and the puzzle solver." From this love, Scrambl-gram, the company he heads, was created.

Still only in virtual form while Elum hunts for a site, the puzzle museum owns about 4,000 puzzle artifacts, ranging from 1920s sheet music of songs about crosswords, to a vintage puzzle book constructed by 1920s stars, including Al Jolson.

"I don't think I'd like to even try," says Elum, sounding a bit taken aback when asked to put a value on his treasures.

While most of the museum-to-be's puzzles are from the last century, the puzzle itself has been around a long, long time, Elum says.

Since its first reported use -- a fish etched into shadowy pathways of the Catacombs in Rome -- the puzzle has grown in popularity, peaking during the mid-20th century. In the 1930s, drugstores and libraries even rented jigsaw puzzles for a few cents a day.

Back then, puzzles were used "just like people would rent a video today," said Anne D. Williams, author of Jigsaw Puzzles: An Illustrated History and Price Guide.

The puzzle was so in vogue in the 1940s that the crossword pattern was stitched into wedding dresses and ball gowns. In May and June of 1944, code words connected to the imminent D-Day invasion were mysteriously spelled out in the London World crossword.

Jigsaw-puzzle sales have sunk since the puzzle's glory days. But up to 60 million people try to solve crosswords every day, some even taking stabs at the "two cups of coffee" brand in the weekend New York Times, as Margaret Farrar, the paper's first crossword editor, liked to call them.

Once Elum finds the right site for his museum -- he's hoping for a spot in Ottawa County, Ohio -- he hopes to piece together an exhibit honoring National Puzzle Day.

He can offer a clue, though, whether it might be up by next Jan. 29.

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