Jigsaw Puzzles in the Time of Covid

A New Reality

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Do you find that jigsaw puzzles have become a part of daily life?  We always seem to have one going.  We even moved a table from the library to the family room for the sole purpose of puzzling!!!

You know, this all began in the turbulent times of 1760.  In the midst of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), when the global populace was coping with regional battles throughout the world (think French and Indian War in North America, Pondicherry in India; Warburg and Torgau in Germany), regional disasters (think Great Fire of Boston; slave rebellion in Jamaica; fire at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in England), national upheavals, (King George II dies and his 22-year old grandson George III assumes the throne; British troops capture Montreal and assure British control over Canada) and, important influences, innovations and inventions (Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli introduces the first mathematical model used to study the population dynamics of infectious disease [OMG does this sound familiar!?!]; Western countries pay an amazing yearly sum of 3 million ounces of silver for Chinese goods [wow, some things just never change, do they?]; Abbe Charles-Michel de l’Epee opens the world’s first free school for the deaf in Paris; Belgian entertainer Joseph Mervin introduces roller skates at the Carlisle House in London; and London engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury…..

wait for it; here it comes….

produces the first Jigsaw Puzzle!!!)

Now those first puzzles in 1760 were nothing like our puzzles today.  Although the mid-1700s were as turbulent and stressful as our 2020 has been, puzzles were not an antidote.  No, the first puzzle designed by Spilsbury was educational and meant for children.  Maps were pasted unto wood and then cut into small pieces.  Called a “dissected map” this product was intended to teach geography in a pleasant and entertaining way.  Amazingly, adults did not discover the calming and cozy benefits of jigsaw puzzles until the 1900s!  But by 1908, a full-blown craze was in progress.  Early puzzles were, in fact, a real challenge, a bit of a puzzle so to speak.  Pieces were cut along color lines so there were no transitions to give a clue.  The pieces did not interlock.  There was no guiding picture on the box.  If the title was vague it could be misleading, and the puzzle subject would be a mystery until completion!!!  Furthermore, wood puzzles were expensive (as much as $5.00 in 1908.)  With the average family  income about $50.00/month, that left the jigsaw puzzle to the wealthy who would, quite regularly, have puzzles on hand for their weekend parties.  But hey, the First Industrial Revolution spanned this same period (1760-1840), so there were many improvements and enhancements to the jigsaw puzzle.  Mass production and inexpensive cardboard brought prices down.  The board game manufacturer, Parker Brothers., introduced their “Pastimes” brand of jigsaw puzzles with fanciful shapes and interlocking pieces.  When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the popularity of jigsaw puzzles soared.  And people learned that, yes, puzzles were, in fact, an antidote to stress and anxiety!  During our current time of Covid19, the demand for jigsaw puzzles has exceeded the manufacturers capacity to fulfill. 

This photo is like a timeline of puzzles. The first 3 pieces are wooden (aligned by age). That last piece is made of modern cardboard. The most difficult to assemble is the first, a chunky wooden piece, that is more like solving a Rubik’s Cube!!!
There is a huge difference in how the puzzles are now produced. Although the basics remain the same–picture pasted unto a backing–the backing has changed from hand-sculpted wood to 3-ply wooden layers to modern cardboard.
We tend to prefer the cardboard pieces because they are easier to lock into place. They stay in place snuggly. And, importantly, they come apart easily when you’re done!!!
This is the oldest puzzle we own. You gotta love the simple directions: THINK!!!
Description: 1″ thick solid wood pieces interlock in 3 dimensions and go together in a certain order and direction. Very unusual. Distributed by Murray Games in Wilbraham, MA.
The chunky wooden puzzles are more like a Rubik’s Cube when it comes to assembly.
The order of assembly is very important!!!

It may be small, but it takes a mighty effort!!!
J. K. Strauss and his wife produced wooden jigsaw puzzles in Brooklyn, NY from the 1930s to the 1970s.
For more information on puzzles, refer to “Jigsaw Puzzles: An Illustrated History and Price Guide” by Anne Williams published in 1990 by Wallace-Homestead Book Company, Radnor PA.
Wooden puzzles are still being produced. There is a heft to the pieces, a tactile pleasure that connects the “dissectologist” (that would be you, a jigsaw puzzle aficionado) to a sense of history.
But wooden puzzles are bulky and require more effort to lock into place. Not to mention the careful disassembly needed to put them away when completed.
Today, jigsaw puzzles are manufactured all over the world.
Future historians will, no doubt, write about the surge in jigsaw popularity in the 2020s!!!
After all, where can we go?
For now, this may be the closest we get to a packed bag!!!

Aw, go ahead, start another jigsaw puzzle.

Dream of future adventures.

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