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A History of Jigsaw Puzzles

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Jigsaw puzzles began as a way to help children learn about geography and changed into something that infuriates adults because all the pieces of sky look the same. Jigsaw puzzles can be traced back to the 1760s. The Internet behemoth has, of course, put a dent in the market for physical jigsaw puzzles, but they still have their place in families that haven’t gone entirely digital.

a-history-of-jigsaw-puzzles

Geography Puzzles

British mapmaker and engraver John Spilsbury gets the credit for inventing jigsaw puzzles. In 1766, he pasted a world map onto a wooden background and cut out the shapes of countries with a handsaw. He called his invention “Dissected Maps” and intended them to be used as educational tools for children.

It turned out that dissected maps proved popular among adults as well; King George III became a fan of the puzzles, presumably in his lucid moments. Spilsbury died soon after launching his creation and his widow carried on the business.

Several copycats set up workshops where similar products were made. By the end of the 18th century, treadle-operated jigsaws sped up production, although the puzzles did not acquire the adjective “jigsaw” until some years later. Mostly, these early puzzles did not have the interlocking pieces that are familiar to us today.

The Spilsbury map puzzle.

The Spilsbury map puzzle.

Jigsaw Puzzle Improvements

By the start of the 20th century, 500-piece puzzles cost $5 each. That’s about $130 in today’s money and far out of reach for the ordinary worker at the time. Puzzlewarehouse.com notes that “High society, however, embraced the new amusement. Peak sales came on Saturday mornings when customers selected puzzles for their weekend house parties in Newport and other country retreats.”

However, those puzzles could be fiendishly difficult to put together. Cuts were made along the line of a colour so there were no clues given by a piece straddling say grass and a house wall. And, the manufacturers tended only to title their products with no accompanying image on the box as a guide.

Also, pieces did not interlock. A jiggle of the table, caused perhaps by overindulgence during the cocktail hour, could jumble all the pieces up again.

33,000 Pieces Assembled in 10 Sections Over Nine Months

Jigsaw Puzzle Mass Production

By the start of the 20th century, big players such as Parker Brothers and Waddingtons entered the business and cardboard puzzles started to take over the market. They were cheap to produce because they could be stamped out of sheets using a metal die-cutting technique. Puzzles could be turned out by the thousands in a few hours.

Wooden puzzles held on in the higher end market but the Great Depression punched holes in their popularity.

The cardboard puzzles were inexpensive when low-cost entertainment was all that many people could afford. Puzzles could be completed, broken apart, and then swapped with family and friends. By 1933, jigsaw puzzles were selling in America at the rate of 10 million a week. Several series of new puzzles came out each week and cost a quarter each.

Some businesses even gave away jigsaws with advertising on them; a player would spend hours putting together the image of a brand name product. That was very cheap advertising gold.

Par Puzzles

Two unemployed young men, Frank Ware and John Henriques, bucked the trend towards cheap, mass-produced puzzles. In 1932, in a classic started-on-the-kitchen-table story, the two men made hand-cut puzzles and formed the Par Puzzle Company.

Each puzzle was unique on a wood backing and contained a signature piece. The early puzzles had a swastika-shaped piece somewhere in the hundreds of cut-outs; this was in remembrance of the original Sanskrit meaning of the symbol of success, luck, and health. Of course, the swastika was co-opted and desecrated by Nazis so Par Puzzles changed its signature pieces to a seahorse.

There were no guide pictures and each puzzle carried a “Par Time” estimate of how long it should take to complete. The company made custom puzzles for clients and neither Buster Keaton nor Marilyn Munroe was able to complete their puzzles in the allotted Par time. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor beat Par time for their puzzle.

Vintage Par puzzles are in demand among collectors and can change hands for as much as $1,000.

The company is still in existence and still pretty much a cottage industry. It asks it customers to “Share with us your tears and jeers on [social media] or a good old handwritten note.”

Jigsaw Puzzle Innovation

Most of the wooden puzzle manufacturers had quit the trade by the 1960s and this created a niche for small, nimble makers.

One of these is Vermont-based Stave Puzzles. The company commissions its own artwork and uses infuriating tricks to frustrate the customers of its wooden puzzles. Some of these brain testers fit together in different ways but only one is correct.

Stave puzzles have no straight edges nor do they come with an image of what the finished item is supposed to look like. The company’s puzzles are given difficulty ratings from one sword “Requires extra concentration” to four swords in which medication may be required.

In 1991, Canadian Paul Gallant invented three-dimensional puzzles. These use a Styrofoam base and are usually models of famous landmarks. Hasbro introduced a 3,141-piece cityscape of New York City that includes the World Trade Center twin towers before disaster struck.

There are now digital versions of 3-D puzzles in which users click and drag pieces to create The Orient Express or Notre Dame Cathedral, among other challenges.

There’s also something on the market called an “immersive panorama jigsaw.” It’s a digital 360 degree puzzle that comes along with a soundscape.

But, people of a certain age are quite happy putting together a 1,000-piece cardboard image of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (below). Happy that is only after the last pieces of the table cloth turn up between cushions on the couch.

a-history-of-jigsaw-puzzles

Bonus Factoids

  • In September 2005, a charity auction bidder paid $27,000 for a custom-made jigsaw puzzle. It is the highest price ever paid for a jigsaw puzzle.
  • The world’s largest jigsaw puzzle was completed in September 2011 by students of the University of Economics of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The 1,600 students fitted 551,232 pieces together to depict a lotus flower. The puzzle measured 48 ft 8.64 in x 76 ft 1.38 in (14.85 x 23.20 m).
  • In 1965, Springbok Editions of Kansas City released it jigsaw of Jackson Pollock’s painting Convergence (below), which is claimed to be the world’s most difficult puzzle. The number of people seeking therapy after attempting it is not recorded.
a-history-of-jigsaw-puzzles

Sources

  • “History of Puzzles.” Ann D. Williams, Puzzlewarehouse.com, undated.
  • “The History of the Jigsaw Puzzle.” Ceaco, September 25, 2017.
  • “Vintage & Collectible Par Jigsaw Puzzles: Can You Beat the ‘Par’ Time?” Patty, turntrash2cash, February 1, 2018.
  • Par Puzzles
  • “History of Jigsaw Puzzles.” D. J. McAdam, American Jigsaw Puzzle Society, July 19, 2000.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor