#MyrtleMondays: Riddle Me This…

This week is the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) virtual conference—an event I was originally scheduled to attend in person, to share the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries with educators from all over America. Of course, those plans have been rearranged a bit, so my appearance there will now be pre-recorded and hosted at the Algonquin Young Readers virtual booth. Visitors will have an opportunity to win a classroom set of Premeditated Myrtle by solving some authentic Victorian-era brainteasers!

I have been a lifelong brainteaser fan (probably no surprise). They were just as popular in the Victorian age. Merriam-Webster tells us that the word dates from 1850, but mind-bending puzzles have been with us since the dawn of civilization.  Scholars have unearthed ancient Sumerian puzzles, and ancient Greek mathematician and engineer Archimedes is said to have been fond of creating them to stump his friends.

Archimedes puzzled over the ways in which the pieces of an ostomachion puzzle could be rearranged to form a square.


Now it’s your turn to match your wits against Victorian puzzlers. See how you do solving some of these favorite 19th century brainteasers! (Check your work against the answers at the end of the post.)

1.) Rebuses

Popular throughout history, rebus puzzles (from the Latin rebus, meaning things) hit a heyday in the early Victorian era. Words in the message are replaced by symbols or graphics (a yew tree for “you,” etc). People sent each other rebus letters, used them in greeting cards and invitations, and advertised their products with them.

This American escort card (a type of calling card) from 1865 features a charming and flirtatious rebus. Can you decode its message?


2.) Riddles

The Victorians also enjoyed riddles, and books like The Amusing Puzzle Book from the 1840s kept them well supplied with new material, like:

Without a bridle or a saddle,
across a thing I ride astraddle.
And those I ride, by help of me,
though almost blind, are made to see.
What am I?

And lest you think all Victorian amusements were highbrow and erudite, they were not above some real groaners, either. Check out these punny stumpers from Answers Magazine in the 1890s:

Answers: Britain’s National Weekly entertained (and advertised to) readers from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Q: How is a tube like a silly Dutchman?
A: One is a hollow cylinder, and the other is a silly Hollander

Q: Why are the waves at Margate like Mount Ararat?
A: Because they are crested there (the Ark rested there).

3. Wordgames were also popular (see this post about the parlor game Logomachy). Try your hand at this great anagram puzzle from 1897’s The Green Guess Book, by co-author Mary Watson.

Reprinted editions of this collection of 100+ original brainteasers are still available.

Why _____ you so?” she said.
“To see your _____,” quoth he.
“You mourn o’er market _____ whose head
Should toss as the ____ free.”
“The freest floweret droops its head
If choked by ____,” said she.

How did you do? Check out the answers below:

1.) May I see you home, my dear?

2.) Spectacles

3.) Stare, tears, rates, aster, tares

Teachers and librarians, hope to “CU” at NCTE this week!