The History of Jigsaw Puzzles

By Daniel McAdam

It is generally agreed that the first jigsaw puzzle was produced around 1760 by John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker. Spilsbury mounted one of his maps on a sheet of hardwood and cut around the borders of the countries using a fine-bladed marquetry saw. The end product was an educational pastime, designed as an aid in teaching British children their geography. The idea caught on and, until about 1820, jigsaw puzzles remained primarily educational tools.

the history of jigsaw puzzlesIn 1880, with the introduction of the treadle saw, what had previously been known as dissections (not a word with particularly enjoyable connotations in our own time) came to be known as jigsaw puzzles, although they were actually cut by a fretsaw, not a true jigsaw. Towards the end of the century plywood came to be used. With illustrations glued or painted on the front of the wood, pencil tracings of where to cut were made on the back. These pencil tracings can still be found on some of these older puzzles.

Cardboard puzzles were first introduced in the late 1800's, and were primarily used for children's puzzles. It was not until the 20th century that cardboard puzzles came to be die-cut, a process whereby thin strips of metal with sharpened edges - rather like a giant cookie-cutter - are twisted into intricate patterns and fastened to a plate. The "die" (which refers to this assembly of twisted metal on the plate) is placed in a press, which is pressed down on the cardboard to make the cut.

Thus, in the early 1900's, both wooden and cardboard jigsaw puzzles were available. Wooden puzzles still dominated, as manufacturers were convinced that customers would not be interested in "cheap" cardboard puzzles. Of course, a second motivation on the part of manufacturers and retailers of jigsaw puzzles was that the profit from a wooden puzzle, which might sell for $1.00, was far greater than for a cardboard jigsaw puzzle, which would usually sell for about 25¢.

The Golden Age of jigsaw puzzles came in the 1920s and 1930s with companies like Chad Valley and Victory in Great Britain and Einson-Freeman, Viking and others in the United States producing a wide range of puzzles reflecting both the desire for sentimental scenes, enthusiasm for the new technologies in rail and shipping and, last but not least, new marketing strategies.

One strategy was to make cardboard puzzles more intricate and difficult, thus appealing as much to adults as to children. Another was to use jigsaw puzzles as premiums for advertising purposes. Einson-Freeman of Long Island City, New York began this practice in 1931, making puzzles that were given away with toothbrushes. Other premiums followed, but more important to the jigsaw puzzle's enduring success was the introduction of the weekly puzzle. This practice began in the United States in September, 1932 - very much the depth of the Depression - with an initial printing of 12,000 puzzles. Soon after, printings rose to 100,000 and then 200,000.

It might seem odd at first glance that a non-necessity like a jigsaw puzzle would sell so well in the Depression. But the appeal, then as now, was that one bought a good deal of entertainment for a small price. The weekly jigsaw puzzle could constitute a solitary or group activity, and would occupy one's time enjoyably for hours. And, of course, a jigsaw puzzle was "recyclable," in that one could break the puzzle up once one had completed it and then pass it on to another family member or friend. Another point to bear in mind that jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts in the Depression discovered what many in our own time are rediscovering - that working on a jigsaw puzzle is a great way to reduce stress!

The popularity of jigsaw puzzles has waxed and waned since the Depression. They are still, just like the first jigsaw puzzle, sometimes used to teach geography: I recall assembling a puzzle of the continental states of the USA when I was a boy. (Texas was an easy piece to locate, Colorado quite challenging.) They are still available in both wood and cardboard. They are still a lot of entertainment for a small price. Jigsaw puzzles are a pastime, and I will make no nobler claim for them. But they are a healthier pastime than watching inane (and occasionally vulgar) television shows or playing inane (and occasionally vulgar and/or violent) computer games. And if they are addictive - and they are - they are a harmless addiction.

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