Mental Floss columnist A.J. Jacobs has written a fascinating book called The Puzzler that will be released on April 26, 2022. The book is an exploration of the history, science, and joy of all kinds of puzzles, from crosswords to jigsaws to the meaning of life. In anticipation of publication, Mental Floss is offering some historical tidbits inspired by the book. Here’s the first installment, on the great rebus craze of 1937.
How did Americans make money during the Great Depression? Yes, some sold apples on street corners and others became migrant farmers. But about 2 million Americans tried to strike it rich another way: By doing puzzles. Specifically rebuses, those brainteasers that combine pictures and words to reveal a solution.
In 1937, the Old Gold cigarette brand came up with an idea to spark sales: A puzzle contest. Though now mostly forgotten, the contest became a months-long national mania, one of the biggest puzzle contests in history.
Competitors had to decode a series of 270 cartoons that hid the names of famous historical figures like Harry Houdini, Millard Fillmore, and Rudolph Valentino. The winner would get a whopping $100,000 (almost $2 million in today’s dollars).
Here’s a sample cartoon:
As you can see, one spectator is shouting “Ho”
They are watching a “race”
The dog is growling “Gr”
One racer has an “e” on his shirt.
And the woman is saying “Lee”
So the answer is: Ho-race Gr-e-lee, or Horace Greeley, the famous newspaper publisher.
The contest was an astounding success: 2 million Americans sent in answers, which translated to 350 bags of mail every day. Old Gold had to hire 800 stenographers and file clerks to pore through the entries. The contest employed a team of puzzle-makers who worked for the head rebus-maker, a “lanky, sandy-haired Frederick Gregory Hartswick, a Yale high-jumper of the class of 1914 who made puzzles a profession,” as TIME magazine put it.
Crafty entrepreneurs sold cheat sheets for as much as $1.45. So many puzzlers flooded America’s libraries for research, some librarians put a 15-minute limit on reading reference books [PDF].
Out of the 2 million entries, there were 54,000 who got all 90 puzzles correct. So the contest went to a tie-breaker round of another 90 puzzles—and 9000 people got all of them correct, leading to a second tie-breaker round of 90 puzzles. After the final round, 8160 solvers remained, having gotten all 270 puzzles correct. So Old Gold resorted to another tie-breaker: This time, contestants had to write an essay about how the contest spurred Old Gold’s popularity in their community. (At least they didn’t have to write about the health benefits of soothing cigarettes.)
The winner couldn’t have been more Frank Capra-ish: Cadet William R. Staggs, a navy pilot. As he said to Life magazine, “I wouldn’t leave the Navy for an armful of $100,000 checks.” But he did now have enough to marry his sweetheart.
The months-long contest raised Old Gold sales by 40 percent, and inspired other companies to do their own puzzle contests, including newspapers, the Boy Scouts, and the Salvation Army.
Think you would have become a $100,000-aire in 1937? Below are four sample cartoons to put yourself to the test. Scroll down for the answers.
For more history and puzzles like these, check out A.J. Jacobs’s upcoming book The Puzzler, out from Crown Publishing on April 26, 2022. You can pre-order here. Copyright A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Rebus #1's Answer: John Stuart Mill (the 19th century philosopher)
The man’s shirt says “J”
The man is saying “Ah!”
The block has an “N”
The woman is saying “S’too”
The boy is saying “are”
The boy’s shirt says “T”
There is a windmill with a “mill”
Rebus #2's Answer: Juliet Capulet (from Romeo and Juliet)
The “Jewelry” sign sounds like “jule”
The woman is saying “Rivet” which contains “et”
The man is wearing a “cap”
The man is saying “You let”
Rebus #3's Answer: Admiral Dewey (naval hero during Spanish-American War)
The worker is putting up an “Ad”
The worker says “Mere”
There’s an “L” in the ad
The woman is saying “Do we”
Rebus #4's Answer: Henry Clay (Kentucky senator)
Note: At least I think this is the answer. If someone has a better proposal, please let me know.
There is a “Hen”
There is a “rake”
The hen was able to “lay” an egg.
Update: Twitter user Nathan Robson (@NathanMisao) has a more likely solution to Rebus #4. They say that the second syllable is not “rake” (the image is of a pitchfork). Instead, it’s “rick,” another term for a haystack. Thank you, Nathan, for your superior knowledge of farming lingo!