History

Old Jigsaw Puzzlers Never Die…They Just Go To Pieces

There is that “blonde joke” about the gal who said, “I bought a puzzle that said ‘2-4 years.’ I don’t know why they think it’s that hard…I finished it in 6 months.”starrynight

That was funny until my husband and I sat down to work a jigsaw puzzle, produced by The Puzzle House, called “Starry Night.” It depicted the famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh painted in June 1889. Since that is my favorite Van Gogh painting, I thought the puzzle would be fun to work. I was wrong.

It took us an excruciating month to put that thing together. When we were done we were so proud we took a picture of it. Pathetic aren’t we? But, don’t laugh at me…my grandmother put together jigsaw puzzles and then glued them to a board to hang on the wall (hey, it was inexpensive “wall art”). I can see now why she was so proud of her accomplishments.

Well, you might be guessing that I had to look up the history of jigsaw puzzles. I shouldn’t have been surprised that there are actually organizations of people hooked on puzzles. Anne D. Williams seems to be a leading authority on the history of jigsaw puzzles. I found a site that had reprinted some of her information.

Evidently jigsaw puzzles originated in the 1760s as educational toys for the wealthy classes. Mapmakers pasted their maps on wooden boards and cut them into small pieces to teach children geography (I thought that was a novel new approach when my children were small).

By about 1900, puzzles began being created for adults as well. By 1908, according to Williams, “a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States.” Those early wooden puzzles were expensive, because they were cut one piece at a time. High society loved them, and bought them for entertainment during weekend house parties. Marion Davies (an actress who became William Randolph Hearst’s mistress) was reputedly addicted to working them.

Puzzles in those days were NOT easy to work. Unlike puzzles for children, there was no picture on the box to clue you to what you were putting together. The pieces didn’t interlock! One hard sneeze could blow a weekend of work (so to speak). Worst of all, the pieces were cut along the color lines, so you couldn’t see that, for instance, the tree branch overlapped the roof of a house. Why was I complaining about my silly puzzle?

In the next few years, Parker Brothers began manufacturing puzzles with interlocking pieces and die-cut cardboard. This made puzzles a lot more inexpensive. In 1932, weekly jigsaws began to be popular. At the newsstand on Wednesdays, one could buy the “Jig of the Week” for 25 cents, rush home, and be the first on the block to solve the puzzle. Advertising puzzles were popular in the 1930’s. Buy a toothbrush or flashlight, and you could get a free jigsaw puzzle (featuring the product).

After WWII, wooden jigsaw puzzles became a lot less popular. They took a long time to make, and wages were rising. It drove up the prices on them. Improving lithography and die-cutting methods helped those cardboard puzzles dominate the market.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember seeing any wooden jigsaw puzzles. But, my grandmother almost always had a cardboard one on the coffee table. I’ve always enjoyed working them.

The last few years, I didn’t get much opportunity to put out a jigsaw puzzle. I have five cats. Nothing is sacred…especially not tiny puzzle pieces. But, my husband, bless his heart, made a puzzle board for me. He cut a large piece of plywood and framed a “lip” around it. He built a frame around a piece of Plexiglas for the cover. I can finally enjoy jigsaw puzzles again.

My web search led to some interesting sites. I found a man who is making wooden puzzles that are fantastic. There are also sites that publish jigsaw puzzles to work on-line.

My favorite puzzles are by Springbok. In 1965, they reproduced Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence” on a puzzle and billed it “the world’s most difficult.” After my experience with “Starry Night”…I have no interest in trying it.