The Pieces Make the Picture: Jigsaw Puzzles

Three clues in a recent crossword puzzle put me on the trail that led me to another kind of puzzle—the jigsaw puzzle. There was a phase in my life when I was quite a jigsaw puzzle-ist. As a student in England, the floor of my room on campus was almost one-quarter covered with a large ‘work in progress’ jigsaw puzzle. This was a community effort where friends who used to come by would fit a piece, or more, to the evolving picture. The next time jigsaws featured in my life was when I used to get simple puzzles for my young children. They were fun, and they kept them engaged with the task of finding a piece that ‘matched’ and ‘fitted’.

It is precisely the exercise of matching and fitting that was the aim of the original puzzle that later came to be called a jigsaw puzzle. The history goes back over two-and-a-half centuries to an English cartographer and engraver named John Spilsbury, who was thinking of a way to help school children learn geography. In 1766 he mounted one of his master maps onto a thin piece of mahogany wood and used a marquetry saw to cut the picture into pieces.

Thus was created what he described as a ‘dissected map’. Children were to reassemble the collection of pieces to recreate a complete map. It is believed that Spilsbury’s first ‘dissected map’ was called ‘Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms’ and the pieces were cut mainly along the geopolitical boundaries of those days. Incredibly, the original puzzle still survives in good condition, and it occupies the pride of place in the Toy Halls of Fame in The Strong Museum in Rochester in the United States. This history museum houses the world’s largest collection of historical materials related to play.

These early maps, each handcrafted and made of good quality paper and wood, were expensive, and not affordable for wide use. It is believed that Spilsbury’s early puzzles were used to teach geography to the children of King George III, and were bought by a few elite boarding schools. 

Spilsbury himself died at the young age of 29 in 1769. But by the end of the century the dissected map puzzles had become popular, and London itself had around twenty such puzzle makers. They introduced themes other than maps for the pictures—alphabet and multiplication tables, themes from the Bible, and pictures of historical events and people. The material and labour costs continued to be high.

The term ‘jigsaw’ to describe these puzzles only came to be used in the 1880s when a special type of saw called a treadle jigsaw was invented. The saw operated by a treadle had a blade that could cut irregular curves; that made the cutting of the pieces easier and cheaper. This was ideal for the hereto called ‘dissected maps’ which could now have pieces with more intricate shapes that could interlock. Thus the ‘maps’ evolved into more complex puzzles that came to be popularly known as ‘jigsaw puzzles’.

The jigsaw which had arrived in the United States in the 1800s became a popular marketable item. In the meantime colour lithography techniques enabled better quality pictures to be developed more efficiently and the quality and variety of jigsaw puzzles also improved.  Enterprising companies developed new production techniques and materials that helped increase production and lowered cost, as well as marketing gimmicks that promoted sales. The cleverest move by the puzzle industry was to introduce puzzle designs for adults. Thus in the first decade of the twentieth century, what had started as an educational support for children, and then had become a source of entertainment as a children’s toy, the jigsaw puzzle, emerged as a popular hobby for adults. 

This kind of pastime was just what people needed in the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. There was large-scale unemployment, people could not afford to go out for entertainment, and jigsaw puzzles provided a no-cost pastime that could engage the whole family. Sales soared; puzzles were offered as freebies with the purchase of other items, and there were even stores and libraries that offered puzzles on rent.

Jigsaw puzzles continued to be made from wood or plywood, and were generally hand cut right until the outbreak of World War II. By the time the war ended, these were too expensive to produce. That is when cardboard began to be used and mechanized cutting equipment enabled large-scale production. Most jigsaw puzzles are today made of good quality cardboard, but there are still collectors of high quality wooden puzzles and some niche manufacturers of the same.

For the rest of the twentieth century, jigsaw puzzles continued to occupy a low-key but steady presence as gifts for children and hobbyist adults. With the twenty-first came the digital tsumani that deluged the market with an entirely new medium for education and entertainment. Old and young were swept away in the flood of never ending apps, data and virtual games that came and went breakneck speed. Until the Pandemic struck. The world changed overnight. Confined inside, over-satiated with a virtual existence, and flickering screens, overwhelmed with situations never before imagined, families dug into forgotten caches to pull out physical books and board games, and rediscovered the jigsaw puzzle!

Once again, the many ‘therapeutic’ benefits of the jigsaw are being hailed. Putting a jigsaw together is considered as a complete brain exercise as it involves both the right (creative and intuitive) and left (logical and objective) sides of the brain. It trains the eyes to pay minute attention to colours, shapes and other details, in order to match the pieces. This exercise improves visual-spatial reasoning, and helps develop perception, focus and concentration. It also calls for patience and persistence. Puzzles are great as a group activity, and also perfect for a quiet solo undertaking. There is more to the pieces of a jigsaw than the eye can see—a perfect picture lies within.   

It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.

–Mamata