The History of Jigsaw Puzzles

What we now know as a fun pastime for all ages started as an educational tool for kids: Jigsaw Puzzles. Nearly 250 years ago, in 1766, a British engraver and mapmaker, named John Spilsbury, invented the very first jigsaw puzzle by pasting a map to a piece of wood and then cutting the wood along the lines on the map. Spilsbury didn’t call his creation a “Jigsaw Puzzle”, instead the moniker he gave it was “dissected map”.

Spilsbury initially created eight different designs - Asia, America, Africa, England, Europe, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and The World. Spilsbury died just a few years after he first started selling his creation, but one of his former apprentices and his widow continued on with the business of making and selling puzzles.

John Spilsbury early puzzle, dissected map, europe
An early John Spilsbury 'dissected map' of Europe!

These early “dissected maps” were designed to be purely educational tools to teach children geography. Over the years, as the growing puzzle industry started to replace maps with colorful images of animals, flowers, mountains and famous works of art, adults started to get hooked on the fun and challenge of sorting through the various wooden pieces to re-assemble the image.

Some of the early puzzles, surprisingly, didn’t come with a picture on the box, only a title. As a result, a puzzler may not know what image would appear from their efforts until the last piece was fitted into place.

By the early 1900s, the puzzle craze had taken hold. Puzzlers were everywhere and manufacturers struggled to keep up with the demand. In fact, in 1909, the legendary game manufacturer Parker Brothers entirely stopped producing games and moved their entire production capacity to just puzzles! During this era all puzzles were cut by hand, so the time and labor involved made them very expensive. In the first decade of the 1900’s the average cost of a jigsaw puzzle was about 10% of the average monthly income. As a result of the high cost to purchase puzzles at the time, in the 1920’s and 1930’s it was common for drug stores and other retailers to rent puzzles by the day!

However, it wasn’t long before innovation would bring the prices down such that the average family could buy them. This caused the rental puzzle-rental business to fade. Cardboard manufacturing was also becoming more commonplace and inexpensive and the advent of inexpensive lithography and die-cutting would allow puzzles to be mass produced at a much lower costs. The timing of the inexpensive, mass-produced puzzles happened to correspond with The Great Depression. As a result, puzzles enjoyed yet another boom in popularity. With the unemployment rate nearing 25% in the US, more and more people found that staying home and working a jigsaw puzzle became a satisfying and inexpensive way to pass the time.

Manufacturers had not only improved upon the process of making the puzzles, but also improved the puzzles themselves. Early puzzles had somewhat random shapes. This evolved in to making pieces shaped like animals or letters or other familiar shapes and then eventually puzzle makers discovered the advantage of making interlocking pieces. This new design helped the puzzles stay assembled in the event that someone bumped the table or moved the puzzle.

Over time, starting in the 1940’s, the hand-cut wooden puzzles faded as the less expensive, mass-produced puzzles took over the market. However, within a few decades, the novelty and appeal of high-end, hand-cut, wooden puzzles allowed the the market for these old-school puzzles to re-emerge. During the last few decades, puzzles have enjoyed yet another resurgence as jigsaw puzzling has found its way to computer-based games and cellphone apps.

Of course, all of this innovation in puzzles over the last couple of centuries had served to set the scene for the last great innovation in puzzles…..the invention of Puzzometry Puzzles in 2014! :-)

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