Monday, 23 June 2014

The dawn of jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzle pieces
I don't know about you — but there's only so many words I can take. I wrote Word Searches For Dummies on a challenging deadline. (Actually — let's face it, all my Dummies books were written on 'challenging deadlines'. Hmmm.) My brain was getting a bit melty from all the words ... but jigsaws saved me. I kept a jigsaw next to my computer, and took regular short breaks to work on it.

It got me out of my chair, away from the screen, and thinking of something other than word searches. A bit of visual fun and thinking, rather than endless wordy stuff. I got through at least three large jigsaws while writing the book, including an almost impossible one of  Escher's Relativity drawing.

Nowadays there are squillions (it is so a word) of jigsaws. They may have a few simple pieces or multi-thousand pieces. 3D shaped puzzles. Jigsaws without straight edge pieces. Jigsaws with 'extra pieces'. Double sided jigsaws. Online jigsaws. All white jigsaws! How did we get to this alarming point?
First jigsaw puzzle, of the British Empire. 1766
The first jigsaw puzzle, by John Spilsbury 1766
British Library
People have, naturally, been playing around with images for thousands of years, and mosaic art could possibly be seen as a type of early jigsaw.

But the first true jigsaw, where a picture is cut up with the intention of being put back together, is credited to engraver and map maker John Spilsbury. He started with his 'dissected map' of the British Empire around 1766. He quickly moved on to include maps of other regions. The maps were glued to wood, and pieces were cut around the shapes of the countries. These dissections were used as a teaching aid for the children from wealthy families. You can find out more about the first jigsaw on the British Library website.

Sadly John died young, so his idea passed on to others to develop. The popularity of dissections grew in the 1800s. They were mostly maps, cut along country borders, with an educational focus. After 1820, the subject of dissections also moved on to religious and moral teaching for children. And around this time some more daring types started to make non-educational (gasp) puzzles, with scenes from fairy takes and nursery rhymes. For fun (gasp again).

In 1880 the treadle saw invented, and the puzzles then came to be known as jigsaws, rather than dissections. Which was admittedly a pretty uninspiring name ...

Initially all jigsaws were wooden, but eventually cardboard was used, by the late 1800s. Cardboard was a popular material once die cutters were developed (like large, complicated and excessively sharp cookie cutters). With the move to cardboard, jigsaws became more affordable to all and sundry,  the 'target age' was expanded to include everyone, not just kids, and their popularity exploded:

New York Times headline from May 1908 warns:

NEW PUZZLE MENACES THE CITY'S SANITY; Young and Old, Rich and Poor, All Hard at Work Fitting Cut-Up Pictures Together. SOLITAIRE IS FORGOTTEN Two Clergymen, a Supreme Court Justice, and a Noted Financier Among the Latest Converts to the Craze.

A lady writing to The Australiasian, from London in 1909 wrote "I do not fancy that the "Jigsaw" will have a lengthy life. Doubtless, it will soon be banished to the limbo of departed games, as "diabolo" was banished."1

Even royalty got in on the act. The Queensland paper, The Warwick Examiner and Times (July 1910) reported that "The late King Edward was bitten by the craze, and was admitted to be one of the speediest puzzle solvers in England, having beaten all records by producing a complicated picture in the space of five minutes. At every house-party to which he went, the hostess made a point of having a good supply of Jig-Saws for his especial benefit."2

The Golden Age of jigsaws was during the 1920s and 1930s. They were especially popular during the Depression, proving to be an inexpensive entertainment for families, that could be done by many people, pulled apart once completed, passed around, reused and shared.

In the mid-1930s manufacturers started to include a picture of the finished puzzle on the cover of the box. Jigsaw 'loaning libraries' were set up, and jigsaw parties, with prizes for the fasting solving times, were popular.

Over time, the designs of what we now think of as the 'classic' jigsaw pieces were developed. There are many sorts of puzzle shapes, though, from colour line cutting (cutting along the edges of a shape, like with the dissected maps, cutting along the edges of countries) to special figure pieces (which can be shaped like animals, people, letters, numbers, and so on). This article goes into detail about the cutting techniques on old jigsaws.

And nowadays there are so many new designs and ways of doing jigsaws ... but that's a story for another time! But it's clear that the Lady who wrote from London in 1909, predicting a short life for these enjoyable puzzles, was way off!

If you are really into jigsaws, I can recommend reading the book The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History, by Anne D. Williams.


1 A LADY'S LETTER FROM LONDON. (1909, May 15). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 47. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from

2 "JIG-SAW" PUZZLES. (1910, July 2). Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 - 1919), p. 2. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from


  1. so they didn't have pictures on the lids (if there were lids) until the 1930s? tricky if the subject was unfamiliar!

  2. I guess that was seen as an advantage when trying to get kids to remember maps ... but yes, tricky with anything else!

    Mind you, nowadays there are various 'competitive styles' for jigsaw solving, and one of them is 'not looking at the picture on the box at all'.

  3. Wentworth Puzzles (UK) offer a 'clueless' box on any order which has no picture and you can have this with one of their tessellation puzzles for a real challenge! They also do a replica of the Spilsbury puzzle... at

    1. Oh interesting! I think they do special pieces, too? My mum and daughter are big fans of their puzzles.


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