Touching a Piece of Puzzle History

Friend of the blog Peter Kanter came by the other day and showed me this curious piece of puzzle history that his brother had stumbled upon in a garage sale or a flea market.

Little did I realize I would soon be holding a puzzle that predates the crossword puzzle by over twenty years.

According to the instruction manual — which features rules for ten different spelling and anagramming games, one or two of which bear no small resemblance to Bananagrams in play style and spirit — this game was copyrighted in 1890 by McLoughlin Bros.

According to one of their catalogs, this game “consists of a box full of letters, so selected as to be most useful in a number of exceedingly interesting spelling games. The letters, printed on cardboard, are easily distinguished and handled. The box label is unusually bright and attractive.”

Yes, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ve been able to do a little research on this marvelous find.

McLoughlin Bros. was a publishing firm based in New York that operated from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s. They specialized in children’s books and picture books, but also published linen books, games, paper dolls, puzzles, and toys.

They were among the first publishing houses to employ color printing techniques in products marketed specifically for children. (They also helped popularize the works of Thomas Nast, curiously enough.)

[A sampling of McLoughlin Bros.-style art, a style definitely reflected in the box art of the anagram game above.]

As it turns out, after the death of one of the founders, the company was sold to none other than Milton Bradley — makers of Battleship, Axis & Allies, Candyland, Connect Four, Operation, and Jenga, among many many others — who had continued success with some of the McLoughlin Bros. products, including mechanical paper toys called “Jolly Jump-Ups.” (You might know “mechanical paper toys” better as pop-up books.) Production of those toys was halted, however, during World War II, presumably to save materials for the war effort.

There is now a collector’s market for McLoughlin products — check out this listing for a game board produced by the firm — and if this anagram game is any indication, the color and striking artistic designs from a century ago still hold up today.

And although I can’t definitively say that this exact game predates the crossword, there’s no doubt that this sort of wordplay was delighting kids and adults alike well before Arthur Wynne’s “Word-Cross” puzzle saw the light of day.

How cool is that?


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26 letter tiles, endless possibilities…

On Tuesday, we delved into tile puzzles and games, exploring dominoes, mahjong, and sliding-tile variations. Letter-tile games may not have the centuries of history behind them that those listed above do, but you simply cannot talk about tile games without discussing one of the world’s most popular and recognizable brands: Scrabble.

Scrabble was created in 1938 by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, and was adapted from a word game he’d invented previously, known as Lexiko. His second attempt at the game — delightfully titled “Criss-Crosswords” — combined the letter tiles and values of Lexiko with the gameboard and playing style that we’ve all come to know.

A decade later, Butts sold the rights to manufacture the game, and James Brunot renamed it Scrabble. (Some sources also cite that Brunot simplified the rules and shifted the locations of the double- and triple-value squares, but I was unable to verify these claims.)

The game wouldn’t become a household name until years later when it was marketed and sold by Milton-Bradley. Nowadays, of course, the brand is not only known worldwide, but in myriad forms.

Our friends at Hammacher-Schlemmer not only sell an extended version allowing for longer words, but a magnetic version and a giant version, dubbed the World’s Largest (with good reason). Several Penny/Dell puzzles are based on the Scrabble model, and those signature tiles have appeared in game-show form and made an impact in the pop culture lexicon, offering more than a few magical moments to author Joe Hill’s thrilling horror novel NOS4A2.

And then there are the electronic versions. From Wordfeud and Words with Friends to Scrabulous (later known as Lexulous after several lawsuits), Scrabble and other letter-tile games (like Dabble and David L. Hoyt’s puzzle-game Word Winder) are ubiquitous in app stores and all over the Internet.

I was recently introduced to Bookworm, a very addictive puzzle game that deftly mixes the pattern-busting appeal of Candy Crush and other games with the Scrabble aesthetic of assigning point values to various words, encouraging you to find longer and more complex letter chains in order to score more points.

But there are board game variations as well. A particular favorite is Upwords, which is basically Scrabble, except the tiles are designed to allow you to stack them atop each other, spelling new words as you use your opponent’s moves against them. For instance, if your opponent played HENCE, you could place an F atop the H and an I atop the E, and then add other letters to the end, creating the word FENCING.

This additional wrinkle creates opportunities for outside-the-box thinking that Scrabble doesn’t, opportunities easily exploitable for any puzzler who’s adept at Changawords, Word Chains, and other letter-shifting puzzles. (Imagine the tile towers you could build, shifting SPARK to SPARS to SOARS to SOAKS to SOCKS to ROCKS!)

All of these letter-tile games and puzzles encourage anagramming skills, strategy, and a dab hand at quick math — being able to tell if you’ll get more out of a double-word short word or a triple-letter longer word, for instance — but there’s another letter-tile treat that adds a bit of speed to the mix: Bananagrams.

Bananagrams works on the same principle of adaptability as Upwords, encouraging anagramming in order to use up every letter tile in your hand. Launched in 2006 as the brainchild of Abraham Nathanson, it breaks free of the board game aspect of Scrabble and Upwords, allowing you to play anywhere, trying to out-anagram and out-grid-build your opponents in the shortest amount of time possible.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lesley Singleton, the UK PR Manager for Bananagrams, after a YouTube acquaintance posted a picture on her Instagram of a Bananagrams game she’d just played in French:

Lesley told me that, much like Scrabble, there are Bananagrams products for multiple languages (in case any Francophiles out there looking for the best possible chance to exercise their multisyllabic linguistic chops).

Although, as it turns out, they don’t add extra u’s to the UK edition. I made sure to ask, just in case. *laughs*

In the end, I doubt there’s a better vocabulary-building tool on the market today than any of these letter-tile games and puzzles. Whether you’re reaching for a banana-shaped bag full of tiles, a magnetic strip of letters, or the app on your iPhone, you’re sure to learn new words, big and small, the more you play.

(Though be wary of Words with Friends. I don’t know where their word database comes from, but I’ve played words I KNOW are words, and they’ve been rejected. Games like that give me headaches, and make me more and more thankful for go-to guides like the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.)

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