The History of Jigsaw Puzzles

 The History of Jigsaw Puzzles

The origins of the jigsaw puzzle date back to the 1760s when in 1767, Englishman John Spilsbury, an engraver and mapmaker living in London, created the first known jigsaw.

John Spilsbury mounted one of his master maps onto a piece of hardwood and then cut around the borders of the countries on the map with a marquetry saw. He then gave the finished product to a local school, where it was used to help the children with their geography education.

This became the start of a pastime that has enthralled and educated millions worldwide, both children and adults, ever since.

The First Jigsaw Puzzles by John Spilsbury in the 1760s

The first Jigsaw Puzzle made by John Spilsbury in the 1760s, originally called "dissected puzzles" or "dissected maps"

Seeing the success of this first puzzle, John Spilsbury began a business producing puzzles showing different geographical themes of The World, these being, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

John Spilsbury's "dissected puzzle" also known as "dissected map"

How John Spilsbury's "dissected puzzle" or "dissected map" looked

John Spilsbury’s early puzzles were very fashionable with affluent households and families, who found them a good and novel way to teach their children geography and they also became popular with the Royal Family.

All puzzles at this time were made of wood and were cut one piece at a time making them rather expensive and not affordable by the working man. As mentioned, only affluent households could afford such luxuries and, in some parts, it became the fashion for those families to choose puzzles for their social parties and gatherings.

The puzzle idea caught on in a big way and at this early stage, because the actual jigsaw cutting machine had yet to be invented, they were actually called dissected puzzles, not jigsaw puzzles.

The expansion of the puzzles saw a natural progression from map puzzles to many other topical scenes and subjects such as farms, scenery’s, nursery rhymes themes, fairy tale subjects, ships, trains and religious events.

In those early days all the puzzles were made from wood and were cut out and formed manually and it was not until the 1880s that the puzzles were actually cut with the jigsaw tool, hence the name jigsaw.

Around the mid 1800s the puzzles became more popular with adults, with puzzles being produced that were intended for adults rather than children. By the late 1800s/early 1900s there was a massive growth in jigsaw puzzles; they became a booming business in much of Britain, Europe and America and became a form of leisure and entertainment for adults.

An example of an early 1900s jigsaw puzzle

An example of an early 1900s jigsaw puzzle

In the early 1900s, the gaming company Parker Brothers had the idea of making the puzzles with interlocking pieces. They were cut mainly by women workers. Parker Brothers claimed that they hired women for the work as women already knew how to sew which was a similar process to using the treadle scroll saw to cut the puzzle pieces. The fact that women were paid less may or may not have had a bearing on the decision.

Printing techniques became more sophisticated with lithographic printing techniques giving  a better quality of print adhered to the wood, showing better, clearer detail with more vivid and brighter colours.

Puzzle makers started to use plywood for the puzzles, since plywood was easier to cut intricate and difficult shapes, and cheaper than the woods and hardwoods previously used.

Following the invention of the first treadle-driven fret-saw in 1865, puzzle makers were able to create better and more complex shapes. It became a much quicker process and more intricate and better puzzles meant the makers could make puzzles that were a greater challenge to the puzzler.

Puzzle makers were now able to design and cut pieces on a whim as they cut the pieces and these pieces became known as “whimsies”.

Puzzles with dissected corners and themed whimsy shapes, such as the shape of a lion within an image of African grasslands or the shape of a person standing alongside a train were now common, making it more of a challenge since the pieces were harder to match if the colours did not span two pieces.

During this period, Jigsaw puzzles were used by companies to promote their company’s business. In 1920, Great Western Railways commissioned Chad Valley to produce a puzzle of their steam engines. Cruise liner companies such as Cunard produced postcard sized puzzles to sell on their cruise ships as souvenirs. This idea was so popular that in 1934 a large puzzle of the Queen Mary was produced before the vessel had even sailed!

Vintage Jigsaw Puzzle of the Passenger Ship The Queen Mary

Vintage Jigsaw Puzzle of the Passenger Ship The Queen Mary

During the great depression which started in the United States in 1929 and spread throughout the western world lasting till 1939, there was a massive surge in jigsaw puzzles. They became a cheap and pleasant way of disengaging from the troubles of that time, since many families could not afford expensive recreational activities.

In 1932 stores even offered free puzzles with the purchase of their products which was a genius move since customers would be reminded of the store and the products all the while they were completing the puzzle.

An interesting turn of events in the 1930s was when Victory puzzles came up with the idea of putting the jigsaw puzzles into boxes with a picture of the puzzle on the front of the box. Sound familiar? Surprising to some now, but up to this point the puzzler would have assembled the puzzle without a picture of the finished article and would have considered it as cheating to see the finished article/picture, while assembling the puzzle.

A beautiful example of a jigsaw puzzle made in 1935c

A beautiful example of a jigsaw puzzle made out of plywood, believed to be 1935c

A further turn of events around the start of World War 2, in 1939, was owing to the many shortages of raw materials, including plywood; jigsaw puzzles were being made out of cardboard instead of plywood.

The introduction of these cardboard jigsaw puzzles was of poor quality cardboard, but nevertheless it was the beginning of the modern cardboard puzzles you now see. Wooden jigsaw puzzles are still made today with modern laser cutting technology but the cardboard puzzles simply made it less expensive to produce.

A further important development was the introduction of die-cut cardboard puzzles. The cardboard used was inexpensive compared to wooden puzzles, enabling the manufactures to cut prices due to mass production.

After the 2nd World War, sales of the wooden jigsaw puzzles fell. Rising wage costs in making the wooden puzzles and the improvement of die cut cardboard puzzles with the advances in lithography simply made the cardboard version more affordable to both produces and the customer.

Many of the known company brands folded, with a good example being Victory puzzles, who during the 50s and 60s were a very popular brand name, yet almost completely disappeared. In America other well known brands such as Parker Brothers, had either disappeared or reduced their output.

Charming 1960s jigsaw puzzle made by Victory Puzzles

A charming 1960s wooden jigsaw puzzle made by Victory Puzzles

Although wooden puzzle were now not so readily available, there was still the market for them and other companies set themselves up by producing three dimensional puzzles such as farm or fairground related scenes. Trick puzzles were produced where the pieces fit together in several different wrong ways and the personalised puzzle was also introduced.

Today’s Jigsaw puzzles are produced with modern methods where  the cardboard, with its desired image, is fed into a machine, that creates and cuts the interlocking pieces by using precision blades and there is the more advanced technology of laser cutting equipment which is also ideal for producing the more ‘high end’, hardwood or acrylic puzzles.

These days, wooden puzzles can be cut in different styles, by computer controlled water jets or lasers. There are also specialists that deal in only hand-cut wooden & customized puzzles and the demand for wooden puzzles is again growing.

Some puzzles are now considered works of art, which are hung on walls to show the complexity of the puzzle. There are animation puzzles, unique eye deceiving puzzles and puzzles that make you look at them again and again to understand the intricacy. A fine example of this is the puzzle named “The Accident” which is an acrylic puzzle that appears as a shattered pane of glass.

Nowadays puzzles are entertaining, fun to assemble and educational. They have become a good way to unwind and relax while at the same time engaging the brain to solve a mystery or a brainteaser, improving a person’s problem solving skills & ability, their patience, their memory and, of course, their perseverance.

In some respects, we have even gone a full circle in that some puzzle enthusiasts now only wish to assemble their puzzles from a plain box, with no picture on the lid to help them, in the same way puzzlers did in the very beginning.