New York City has been the launchpad for many inventions now essential to our daily lives. This includes items ranging from toilet paper to credit cards, as well as inventions for leisure, such as the Cronut and Mr. Potato Head. Among the most popular of these inventions to spring up from New York is the beloved board game, Scrabble, created by Jackson Heights resident Alfred Mosher Butts in 1931.
In the 1990s, Jackson Heights resident, Jeffrey A. Saunders, worked with Asher Butts’ great-nephew, Robert R. Butts, to uncover more of the Scrabble story. After digging through archives, reading books, and talking to Butts’ friends and original players, Saunders developed a clear picture of how the Jackson Heights community fit into the history of Scrabble.
On Sunday nights during the Depression, Asher Butts would invite friends and family to his apartment to play Criss-Cross Words, a game made of hand-cut tiles — each emblazoned with an individual letter and a number for how many points that letter was worth — that would be arranged by players into words. Over the course of these weekend gatherings, Butts perfected the gameplay and design.
Soon the game was taken out of Butts’ apartment and into the community. Records show reservations at the Community Methodist Church on 35th Avenue from the mid-1930s for Criss-Cross Word games in the church’s social room. In 1938, Butts filed a patent for the game, which would come to be known as Scrabble in 1947. Around the same time Saunders was conducting his research, a sign went up on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street in Queens, subtly commemorating the birthplace of the game.
The sign in question has markings that denote each letter’s point value in the Scrabble game. The origins of the sign are a mystery since the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Transportation Department — the two agencies most likely to finance and authorize the sign in the Jackson Heights Historic District — deny any knowledge of where it came from.
Just as mysteriously as the sign appeared in 1995, it disappeared in 2008. Once again, even though the Transportation Department is responsible for removing unauthorized street signs, that agency and the Preservation Commission played no part in the sign’s removal. A few years later, in 2011, at the behest of proud residents and thanks to the efforts of Councilman Daniel Dromm, the sign, which would earn you at least 14 points in the game, was officially reinstated.