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History of Jigsaw Puzzles: How Did It All Begin?

If you’ve been a puzzle fan for a while, you might have grown more interested in the history of jigsaw puzzles. Right?

Well, I did too. I researched and researched.. and then wrote this little piece on jigsaw history that I hope you’ll enjoy. We’ll look into who invented jigsaw puzzles and everything that followed.

A lot of the following info comes from the ultimate jigsaw puzzle legend, a puzzle historian Anne D. Williams. She is actually the real Jigsaw Puzzle Queen. I’ll hand over my crown to her if she ever asks. 😃

She wrote this book:

The last edition is from 2004. This book is practically the bible of jigsaw puzzle history.

Real history buffs can check out also Tom Tyler’s British Jigsaw Puzzles of the 20th Century (2006) and the even older Linda Hannas’ The English Jigsaw Puzzle, 1760-1890 (1972).

If you don’t feel like reading a whole book on the topic, let me take you on a ride through the 250 years-long jigsaw puzzles history:

The invention of the first puzzles

So who invented the jigsaw puzzle? Some say Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician who lived in 250 BC, was the first who came up with the idea of a puzzle. He is known for cutting a square into 14 pieces to try to assemble them in different ways.

The more realistic beginnings of jigsaw puzzles are connected to teaching geography to affluent children. A London-based mapmaker John Spilsbury is the one who invented jigsaws, as we know them today. In the 1760s he cut a mahogany board into pieces by national borders, using a handheld fretsaw.

So the first puzzle pieces were in the shape of countries. It is said that even the children of the British Royal Family played with ‘dissected maps’, a unique educational tool of the time. King George III. was a big advocate of dissected maps and even had a large cabinet made specifically for the storage of the many maps used to teach his children.

A historical world map from 1814
This is a map from 1814. Now imagine it being cut into pieces by national borders and you have an idea what the first puzzles, a.k.a. dissected maps looked like.

Gradually, the educational tool spread into other areas, such as teachings about the farm, religious images, etc. Until about 1820, the dissections were an educational tool only.

In 1891, Ravensburger, as the only puzzle brand still in existence today, made their first puzzle eight years after the company was founded. The wooden puzzle called simply “Geographical Puzzle” followed Spilsbury’s lead and taught children about geography.

A hobby for adults emerges

In the early 1900s, even adults started to solve puzzles, this time on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Yes – the puzzles made their way to the United States.

Only in the early 20th century, the game company Parker Brothers came up with the invention of the fully interlocking pieces. Until then, the pieces didn’t hold together as well. Some were so loose that any sneeze could wreak havoc on your work.

However, I did find examples of a New York map puzzle made in 1880, which was made of interlocking pieces of some form. You can see the image here. Apparently, back then it was common to have the edge pieces interlock so that they’d hold a fixed frame. The middle pieces were often cut more simply.

A historical photo of an elderly man solving a jigsaw puzzle
This is how it looked when adults started to solve jigsaw puzzles 😁

Today’s cardboard puzzles die-cutting technology comes from 1950 and hasn’t been modified since. What still keeps getting upgrades is the printing, the finish of the surface, and the quality of the cardboard.

The term “jigsaw”

The term jigsaw started to be used in 1880 when a special saw, which allowed easier cutting of the puzzles, was invented. It was called a jigsaw, but it was a foot-operated treadle saw, also known as a scroll saw. Today’s jig-saw is something quite different.

A closeup of a scroll saw
Today’s scroll saw. The first models the wooden puzzles were cut with were foot-operated, like a sewing machine.

Materials used

The first puzzles were made of hardwood such as mahogany or cedar. In the 19th century, plywood started to become more prevalent.

Cardboard came around in the early 20th century but didn’t catch on at first. With a shortage of wood to use for plywood at the beginning of the Second World War, cardboard started to be used more and more.

This type of material could be die-cut and the laborious process of sawing could be eliminated. In the early 1930s, for the first time, the die-cutting technique allowed easy manufacturing of puzzles with up to a thousand pieces.

Wooden puzzles never fully went out of business. They are still produced today, as a more high-end version of the ‘ordinary’ jigsaw puzzle. The most modern cutting techniques include laser cutting and the use of water jets.

The Great Depression Boom

As people quickly learned during the harsh times of the Great Depression (1929 – 1933), jigsaw puzzles provide a wonderful pastime that greatly helps to alleviate stress in your life. (More on jigsaw puzzle benefits here.)

The time also played in favor of the entrepreneurial minds and those who were seeking new ways of employment after being laid off during the Great Depression. Many people would buy a cheap scroll saw and make puzzles to sell.

1930s in wooden letters
The 1930s, an era of the Great Depression

Renting puzzles became a thing during that time too. Libraries and drugstores would rent puzzles out and charge per day.

Puzzles had also become so widespread because they were given away for free! In 1931, a creative New York businessman started giving away promotional puzzles with the purchase of a toothbrush. The practice caught on and the cheaply made puzzles would serve as great promotional material.

Only a year later, another fun idea emerged and hooked even more people: the ‘Jig of the Week’. A new weekly puzzle would appear at newsstands on Wednesday featuring a cheaply made die-cut puzzle. People went wild for them and challenged their friends over who would solve the current one first. Other weekly puzzles quickly followed. Quite a good way to get out of the Great Depression, if you ask me.

Sculptures of men waiting in a bread line during the Great Depression - part of the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC
Men waiting in a bread line during the Great Depression – part of the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC

As Anne Williams claims, 30 million American households would assemble 10 million jigsaw puzzles every week – those were the peak numbers.

Old footage I saw showed people walking outside with puzzle holders hanging around their neck and solving while walking! Bumping into someone would mean your whole work was ruined and perhaps you even lost a few pieces. Still, I might need that genius invention for my walks. 😉

The 2020 Jigsaw Puzzle Boom

As I’m writing this article in 2020, the analogy with the Great Depression cannot be any starker. Since the 1930s, there’s never been another jigsaw puzzle boom – until now. Jigsaw history is being added to greatly once again.

Let me know what your thoughts are about the history of jigsaw puzzles and whether you’ve been a longtime fan or have only recently discovered your enthusiasm for puzzles. I reply to every comment!

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Jigsaw History Concept with text overlay: History of Jigsaw Puzzles

Additional sources used in this article: [1] [2] [3] [4] and many more

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