Most people have spent a cloudy Sunday working away at the coffee table over a jigsaw puzzle. It is a nice way to pass the time alone or it can be a great casual collective experience with friends and family. But just who exactly invented jigsaw puzzles?
The earliest known jigsaw puzzle dates back to around 1760 and was created by a London cartographer named John Spilsbury. He cut the individual countries out of a map of Europe and then marketed it as an educational tool for learning geography called “dissected maps.”
This original puzzle was primarily used for educational purposes, as did many puzzles that followed after it. But over time the manufacturing and idea of a jigsaw puzzle evolved to entertain millions. Let’s take a closer look at that evolution.
After Spilsbury produced his first “dissected map” of Europe, the idea quickly caught on in upper class circles as a great tool for educating their children. While today’s puzzles are generally printed on cardboard, these early puzzles were made by mounting maps on sheets of hardwood, then carefully cutting out boundaries using a tool called a marquetry saw.
Plenty of others quickly joined Spilsbury and made their own dissected maps. Unlike modern jigsaw puzzles, these were cut strictly around the drawn borders of a map and were designed to be used as educational tools in school or homes. It was until much later that puzzles started to be based on art, photography, and whatever else.
In the mid 1800’s, jigsaw puzzles started to become a popular pastime for adults and were now being targeted towards a broader audience. Pictures were no longer just “dissected maps.” They were now pastoral scenes or images of people in various activities. Instead of “dissected maps,” they were now being called “dissected pictures” or “dissected puzzles.”
The name “jigsaw” puzzle didn’t start to be used until the 1880s. A new tool called a fretsaw was being used to manufacture the puzzles. Fret saws and jigsaws are distinctly two different tools, so it remains a bit unclear as to why the term “jigsaw puzzle” caught on when in fact the jigsaw was never the tool of choice.
Also in the late 1800’s cardboard puzzles began to emerge, but weren’t as popular as the pricier hardwood puzzles. They were seen as cheap and flimsy by comparison. Additionally, manufacturers stood to make a large profit selling the hardwood puzzles at the time.
Jigsaw puzzles maintained mild success through the 1800’s and into the early 20th century. They continued to become more accessible and more interesting as new puzzle makers struck interesting shapes and designs onto the wood.
New cutting techniques emerged like dissected corners, straight interior pieces, and whimsies, or pieces cut to a specialized shape that matches the theme of the puzzle. These new techniques heightened the difficulty of the puzzle and enticed serious puzzlers to dive in deep on the challenge.
Then the Great Depression rocked the United States. While many forms of entertainment went by the wayside due to the harsh realities of the economy, jigsaw puzzles soared in popularity. It seemed that with so many people out of work and so little money to spend on entertainment, a jigsaw puzzle became a great way to pass the time.
A jigsaw puzzle was a fun and easy way to forget the troubles surrounding you and immerse yourself in finding just the right piece. It also became an income stream for some folks. Many families invested in a scroll or fret saw and started to produce their own jigsaw puzzles to try and earn some money.
They would either sell the puzzles directly to consumers and neighbors, or sometimes they would work with the local drug store and folks could rent the jigsaw puzzle for a time, then bring it back when they finished. Companies also seized the opportunity to advertise. Train and Cruise Line companies produced puzzles with images of their crafts as souvenirs and advertisements.
During WWII, the production of jigsaw puzzles had to be rethought. Plywood, the common puzzle material of the time, was in short supply as it was being redirected for the war effort. Puzzle makers finally started to more readily embrace cardboard as a medium to print their puzzles on.
The cardboard was cheap and flimsy at first. Faced with little to no alternatives, the puzzle makers created a more durable cardboard without having to raise costs. These new cardboard puzzles became the expected norm and puzzles are generally still printed on cardboard to this day.
Another novelty that came about around WWII was the idea of printing the finished image on a box. Victory Puzzles produced a line of puzzles with a print of the finished image on the box. No other puzzle maker had done this. Up until then it would have been considered lazy or cheating to use a reference image to solve a puzzle. But obviously this trend stuck too.
Over the latter half of the 1900’s, jigsaw puzzles rose and fell with interest among children and families. Companies continued to innovate new techniques and materials. Most modern jigsaw puzzles are made of paperboard and are cut using a steel press. The press forces steel blades through the paperboard in a specific pattern referred to as a puzzle die.
While this may be the most common modern day jigsaw puzzle, there are companies out there still innovating and creating unique jigsaw puzzles. Several companies will allow you to custom print any image you like onto a jigsaw puzzle, while others may use a special laser cutting process for super unique shapes. Others may make unique 3-D puzzles or double sided puzzles.
Most large scale puzzle manufacturers use the paper board and press method, there are some companies that have been making puzzles for over a century and remain committed to solid wood puzzles. These include popular Liberty Puzzles and Wentworth Puzzles.
It has been pointed out that the jigsaw puzzle was as popular during the early Covid-19 shutdowns as it was during the Great Depression. Puzzles were out of stock all over and neighborhood puzzle swaps became a common way to share some joy during an otherwise blink and solitary time.
Modern puzzle enthusiasts also have an arsenal of accessories such as puzzle mats and frames to go with their hobby. While some people like to assemble a puzzle then disassemble it for another time, many people enjoy the art of framing their completed puzzle as a work of art. Early puzzle makers would be amazed by this, given they intended them as reusable educational tools.
Jigsaw puzzles have stood the test of time. They’ve been around for over 250 years and the trend doesn’t seem to be declining. Sure their popularity will rise and fall with the times and interest, but as we have seen in recent history, something may come around and push the puzzle back into vogue.
Jigsaw puzzles are a fun activity for kids and adults and the options just continue to expand each day. Specially made “family puzzles” are great options for groups with broad age ranges. These feature puzzles pieces in both large and small sizes so that everyone can find something just right for their skill level to focus on.
While a puzzle may not be quite as exciting as a flashy new video game or a home brewing kit, it definitely has staying power. Chances are you’ve got one collecting dust on your shelf right now. Why not go ahead and give it a try?
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