Here’s a puzzler for you…puzzles! The origins of jigsaw puzzles go back to the 1760s when European mapmakers pasted maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces. John Spilsbury, an engraver and mapmaker, is credited with inventing the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. The dissected map has been a successful educational toy ever since. American children still learn geography by playing with puzzle maps of the United States or the world. (Yikes, learning goes on, even in fun and games!) Children’s puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment, showing diverse subjects like animals, nursery rhymes, and modern tales of superheroes. But, the biggest surprise for the early puzzle makers would be how adults have embraced puzzling over the last century.
Puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 in the United States. The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening’s work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike children’s puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box; if the title was vague or misleading, the true subject could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place. Because wood puzzles had to be cut one piece at a time, they were expensive. A 500-piece puzzle typically cost $5 in 1908, far beyond the means of the average worker who earned only $50 per month.
The next few years brought two significant innovations. First, Parker Brothers, the famous game manufacturer, introduced figure pieces into its Pastime brand puzzles. Figure pieces made puzzles a bit easier to assemble. But the fascination of pieces shaped like dogs, birds, and other recognizable objects more than offset the somewhat reduced challenge. Second, Pastimes and other brands moved to an interlocking style that reduced the risk of spilling or losing pieces. Pastime puzzles were so successful that Parker Brothers stopped making games and devoted its entire factory to puzzle production in 1909.
Another important development was the introduction of die-cut cardboard puzzles for adults. Mass production and inexpensive cardboard allowed the manufacturers to cut prices substantially. There was a vogue for advertising puzzles in mid-1932. Retail stores offered free puzzles with the purchase of their products.
The autumn of 1932 brought a novel concept, the weekly jigsaw puzzle. The die-cut Jig of the Week retailed for 25 cents and appeared on the newsstands every Wednesday. People rushed to buy them and to be the first among their friends to solve that week’s puzzle.
After World War II, the wood jigsaw puzzle went into a decline. Rising wages pushed up costs substantially because wood puzzles took so much time to cut. And as prices rose, sales dropped. At the same time improvements in lithography and die-cutting made the cardboard puzzles more attractive, especially when Springbok introduced high quality reproductions of fine art on jigsaws. In 1965 hundreds of thousands of Americans struggled to assemble Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, billed by Springbok as the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle.
One by one, the surviving brands of wood puzzles disappeared. Parker Brothers discontinued its Pastime puzzles in 1958. By 1974, both Frank Ware of Par and Straus had retired from the business. The English Victory puzzles, easily found in department stores in the 1950s and 1960s, almost completely vanished. Puzzles Do Live On In the Tech Age! Make it a challenge to rediscover a piece of fun history and start puzzling this summer.