The eighteenth century map makers who invented jigsaw puzzles were concerned only with promoting a new way to teach geography. They would be amazed to see how puzzles have been transformed over the last two hundred years.
Children's puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment, showing diverse subjects like animals, nursery rhymes, and modern tales of Mickey Mouse and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. But the biggest surprise for the early puzzle makers would be the adults who have embraced puzzling over the last century.
Puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States. Contemporary writers depicted the inexorable progression of the puzzle addict: from the skeptic who first ridiculed puzzles as silly and childish, to the perplexed puzzler who ignored meals while chanting just one more piece; to the bleary-eyed victor who finally put in the last piece in the wee hours of the morning.
The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There was no overlapping color to signal, for example, that the brown roof piece fit next to the blue sky piece. A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening's work because the pieces of these early puzzles 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 would be a mystery until the last piece was 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 with earnings of only $50 per month.
High society, however, embraced the new amusement. Peak sales came on Saturday mornings when customers picked up puzzles for their weekend house parties in Newport and other country retreats.
The next few years brought two significant innovations. First, Parker Brothers, the famous game manufacturer, introduced figure pieces into its Pastime Brand Puzzles. Although figure pieces made puzzles easier to assemble, most puzzlers were fascinated by pieces that were shaped like dogs, birds, and other recognizable objects.
Second, Pastimes and other brands moved to an interlocking style that made it easier to assemble puzzles without 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.
Following this craze, puzzles continued as a regular adult diversion for the next two decades.
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, puzzles for adults enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, peaking in early 1933 when sales reached an astounding 10 million per week. Puzzles seemed to touch a chord, offering an escape from the troubled times, as well as an opportunity to succeed in a modest way.
Completing a jigsaw gave the puzzler a sense of accomplishment that was hard to come by when the unemployment rate was climbing above 25 percent. With incomes depleted, home amusements like puzzles replaced outside entertainment like restaurants and night clubs.
Puzzles became more affordable too. Many of the unemployed architects, carpenters, and other skilled craftsmen began to cut jigsaw puzzles in home workshops and to sell or rent them locally.
During the thirties craze for puzzles, drugstores and circulating libraries added puzzle rentals to their offerings. Typical rental rates were 25 cents for the first three days, plus 5 cents for each extra day.
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. The Pro-phy-lac-tic Brush Company was the first to supply free puzzles for druggists to give to toothbrush buyers.
Other firms jumped on the bandwagon with puzzles advertising their products. What better way to keep a brand name before the public than to have them working for hours to assemble a picture of the product?
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 news stands every Wednesday. People rushed to buy them and to be the first among their friends to solve that week's puzzle. There were dozens of weekly series, including Picture Puzzle Weekly, B-Witching Weekly, Jiggers Weekly, and Movie Cut-Ups, with the last featuring popular films of the day.
With the competition from the free advertising puzzles and the inexpensive weekly puzzles, the makers of hand-cut wood puzzles were hard-pressed to keep their customers. Yet the top quality brands like Parker Pastimes retained a loyal following throughout the Depression, despite their higher prices.
Indeed the Depression led to the birth of Par Puzzles, long dubbed the Rolls Royce of jigsaw puzzles. Frank Ware and John Henriques, two young men with no job prospects cut their first puzzle at the dining room table in 1932. But while others were seeking ways to cut costs, they steadily improved the quality of their puzzles, and marketed them to movie stars, industrialists and even royalty.
Par specialized in personalized puzzles for the rich and famous, incorporating the owner's name or birth date as figure pieces. They also perfected the irregular edge to frustrate the traditional puzzler who tried to start with the corners and edge pieces. Ware and Henriques further teased their customers with misleading titles and par times that were unattainable for all but the fastest puzzlers.
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 (another long-time manufacturer) had retired from the business. The supply of English Victory Puzzles, easily found in department stores in the 1950s and 1960s, started to dry up. The true addicts of wood puzzles began to suffer withdrawal symptoms.
One Boston-area puzzler contacted Strategy House, a young company that specialized in games and die-cut cardboard puzzles. When the owners, Steve Richardson and Dave Tibbetts, learned that this customer would pay $300 for a hand-cut wood puzzle, they set out to fill the void. Strategy House faded away, and the partners adopted the name Stave as they concentrated on their new venture into hand-cut puzzles.
Within a few years Stave had succeeded Par as the leader in wood puzzles. Indeed, Stave went several steps beyond Par, by commissioning original hand- colored prints that were specially designed to interact with the cutting patterns.
Over the years Richardson invented many trick puzzles that fit together in several different wrong ways, but with only one correct solution. Experimentation with pop-up figure pieces led to three dimensional puzzles such as a free-standing carousel.
Like Par, Stave targets the carriage trade, and appears in the Guiness Book of Records as producer of the world's most expensive jigsaw puzzle. Stave also emphasizes personalized puzzles and service, even remembering its customers' birthdays.
Stave's success convinced other potential makers that a market could be found, leading to a broader resurgence of hand-cut and custom puzzles in the 1980s. There are even some wood puzzles cut by computer-controlled water jets.
Puzzle aficionados of today can choose from a number of different styles of wood puzzles to suit their passions for perplexity. And many puzzlers are graduating from cardboard to wood puzzles, as they discover the satisfying heft of the wood pieces, the challenge of matching their wits against an individual puzzle cutter, and the thrill of watching a picture emerge from a plain box with no guide picture on the lid.
Anne D. Williams, author of Jigsaw Puzzles, An Illustrated History and Price Guide, (Radnor PA: Wallace-Homestead/Chilton, 1990) is a leading expert on jigsaw puzzles. As well as collaborating in development of the "Virtual Jigsaw Puzzle Exhibit" on the Web, she has served as curator for two major "real" exhibitions of jigsaw puzzles, Pieces In Place: Two Hundred Years of Jigsaw Puzzles (1988), and Cutting A Fine Figure: The Art of the Jigsaw Puzzle (1996).
Her book, Jigsaw Puzzles: An Illustrated History and Price Guide, is out-of-print, but available in many libraries. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. To order the 1996 exhibition catalog, Cutting a Fine Figure, contact the Heritage Shop, Museum of Our National Heritage, P.O. Box 519, Lexington, MA 02173. Phone: 617-861-6559.
Her newest book - The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing together A History, New York: Berkley Books, 2004, is available through bookstores.
Last update April 2, 2010