Ever wonder about the history of jigsaw puzzle games? Back in the 1760s, mapmakers in Europe would paste maps onto wood and then cut that wooden map into small sections. Those map puzzles later became an educational tool. An engraver and mapmaker named John Spilsbury is attributed with making the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767.
By Creator: John Spilsbury – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. Catalogue entry., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31453143
The first “jigsaw puzzles” weren’t called by that name. They were called “dissected maps”, which was fitting since the first puzzles were created from maps. These early puzzles were sold to schools, teachers, tutors, etc., to aid in educating children about geography.
By Wallis, J. (John) – https://www.loc.gov/item/85695465/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69844186
The name itself, “jigsaw puzzle”, came along around 1909. It comes from the fact that the puzzle pieces were cut out from wood with a jig saw. A jig saw, invented around 1855, is a small, hand-held saw that has a thin, serrated, vertical blade that moves up and down quickly.
In the early 1900s putting puzzles together became all the rage in the United States. In 1908, since the puzzles were made of wood and had to be cut one piece at a time, they were costly. They were gaining popularity in both the United States and Europe, despite their cost.
Sales rocketed as affluent families would select which puzzles they wanted each week to entertain guests at their parties. These early puzzles were more challenging because the pieces did not interlock and also, there was no picture on the box to act as a guide.
Puzzle workers often did not know what the picture was until the last pieces were put into place. Yet, they were addicted, and this trend continued for the next couple of decades.
People who could afford jigsaw puzzles were avid fans and their popularity grew, and then peaked in 1933, during the Great Depression.
Process & Growth:
People didn’t have much money or ability to do much in the way of entertainment during the Great Depression era. Working puzzles filled a need by taking their minds off of their troubles and allowed them to have a fun pastime.
During this time, jigsaws were so cheap that some businesses even gave them away at no cost. Families loved them and would share them with friends and neighbors. Several companies produced puzzles during this era, a few of them being:
- Parker Brothers
- Milton Bradley
- The Detroit Publishing Company
Also during this era, Parker Brothers started producing figure-piece puzzles, which were puzzles that were shaped like common animals or other familiar items. While not as challenging, people enjoyed putting them together and seeing the end result. Parker Brothers also developed the process of making the pieces interlock, which made it much more fun to work the puzzles.
Parker Brothers also had a line of Pastime Puzzles, that were very popular. These puzzles, made of wood, enjoyed success starting in 1908 and lasting 50 years.
In the 1930s, the process of die-cutting puzzle pieces from cardboard was developed. This led to the production of jigsaw puzzles that were much less expensive than those made from wood.
A picture could be placed onto cardboard and then cut out all at once; this led to mass production. It also allowed for larger puzzles of 1,000 pieces, or more, to be manufactured. The process was improved in the 1950s, but since that time not much has changed other than better-quality images.
Jigsaws remain popular today, and there are many different types:
- Wooden – still popular and noted for durability
- Cardboard – affordable and available in wide varieties
- 3-Dimensional – forms a 3-D sculpture; gaining popularity
- Virtual – worked on computers, tablets, smartphones/iPhones, etc.
February 4, 2021 Update:
Due to COVID – 19, jigsaw puzzles have become more popular than ever, with sales skyrocketing! While the reason behind it is sad, it’s nice to know that people are finding ways to deal with this ongoing pandemic…and also to realize that jigsaw puzzles can and do withstand the test of time by remaining such a popular pastime.
I’d like to extend my wish of “Happy Puzzling” to all puzzlers, both old and new!