Okay, over Christmas I gave and received several jigsaw puzzles. I do puzzles on my Kindle Fire every evening. The presents I gave were those personalized puzzles where a person receives a puzzle of his or her hometown or community based on Google maps. I received a 3D one of London. With over 1200 pieces, it will take me a good long while…at least, I hope so.
All this got me thinking of John Spilsbury (1739 – 3 April 1769), a British mapmaker and engraver, who is credited as the inventor of the jigsaw puzzle. Spilbury was the second of three sons of Thomas Spilsbury; the engraver Jonathan Spilsbury was his elder brother, and the two have sometimes been confused. [Can you imagine naming your children Johnathan and John? Shades of George Foreman…] The younger Spilsbury served as an apprentice to Thomas Jefferys, the Royal Geographer to King George III.
According to the repeated tale, Spilsbury created the first puzzle in 1767 as an educational tool to teach geography. He affixed a world map to wood and carved each country out to create the first puzzle. Later, he created puzzles on eight themes – the World, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
Spilsbury married Sarah May of Newmarket, Suffolk in 1761. After his death she ran his business for a period before marrying Harry Ashby, who had been apprentice to Spilsbury and who continued to sell puzzles.
Puzzles for adults came onto the market in the early 1900s. Early puzzles had pieces cut exactly upon the color lines. From “History of Puzzles” on About.com, we learn, “There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening’s work because the pieces 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 could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place.”
In the beginning, puzzles were expensive to own. The pieces were cut one by one. It could cost up to $5 for a 500-piece puzzle in 1908 when the average household saw a monthly income of $50. Also, early puzzles had no picture on the box to follow to know what the image should be.
Two significant innovations occurred in the early 1900s. First, Parker Brothers® introduced figure pieces, which made puzzles easier to assemble, into its ‘Pastime’ brand puzzles. Pieces shaped like dogs, birds, and other recognizable objects did not take away from the experience of putting the puzzle together. Second, Pastimes and other brands developed interlocking pieces, reducing the possibility of 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.
By 1933, sales of puzzles for adults reached 10 million per week. Puzzles were a popular form of entertainment during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, home craftsmen made their own puzzles and public libraries added puzzles to their lending libraries.
Die-cut cardboard puzzles for adults became more popular when the combination of mass production and inexpensive cardboard allowed the manufactures to cut prices substantially. In the early 1830s, retail stores offered free puzzles, which were an early form of product placement, with the purchase of a toothbrush, a flashlight, or hundreds of other products.
In 1932, people could purchase a weekly jigsaw puzzle each Wednesday from their local new stands. These were very popular. There were dozens of weekly series and the inexpensive puzzles cut into the marketplace for those who still made puzzles by hand. Yet the top quality brands like Parker Pastimes retained a loyal following throughout the Depression, despite their higher prices.
A pair of savvy businessmen, Frank Ware and John Henriques, marketed their hand cut puzzles to movie stars and others of affluence. Their customized puzzled were designed to meet the buyer’s unique wishes – a birthdate or a person’s name. Ware and Henriques’s puzzles were designed with irregular edges, which frustrated those who used the straight edges to form a frame for the final product. They also published their “Par Times” for Par Puzzles. Those who put the puzzles together competed to beat the “par” times.
After WWII, Springbok introduced fine art jigsaw puzzles. I recall trying to put together Jackson Pollock’s ‘Convergence,’ billed by Springbok as ‘the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle.'” Even so, sales of most puzzles dropped, and die-cut cardboard puzzles replaced the hand cut wooden ones. Parker Brothers’ Pastime puzzles were no more by 1958. The exclusive Par puzzles could not be purchased after the early 1970s. The English ‘Victory’ puzzles, easily found in department stores in the 1950s and 1960s, almost completely vanished.
Further reading: Cutting borders: Dissected maps and the origins of the jigsaw puzzle. An article written by Martin Norgate and published in 2007 in Cartographic Journal, volume 44 number 4 on pages 342-350.
The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life by Marcel Danes (Google Book)