How Old Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

It’s Monday! And usually on Mondays I talk about history. Lately it’s been history that informs on whatever novel I’m working on (like the Oregon Trail, for example). But over this past long weekend, I fell headfirst into a small obsession, and it’s taken over my brain. I’m talking about jigsaw puzzles.

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle. Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle.
Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

So being the nerd I am, as I was puzzling away this past weekend, I caught myself asking myself, “Hmm, I wonder how old jigsaw puzzles are?” So of course I had to find out.

Turns out, they’re pretty old. The first jigsaw puzzle is credited as being a creation of London-based engraver and mapmaker John Spilsbury in 1760. Yep, puzzles are an 18th century invention! What I found particularly interesting is that the first puzzles were Spilsbury’s maps, mounted on wood and cut into pieces. His aim was to have people learn geography by putting the maps together. So those wooden map puzzles where each state was a piece that I loved so much when I was a kid were actually staying true to the original purpose of the puzzle.

Puzzles continued to grow in popularity through the 19th century. During that era, they were usually pictures pasted onto plywood with the design of the pieces traced on the back in pencil. The puzzle-maker would use those pencil lines to cut out the pieces with a fretsaw (not actually a jigsaw). I think it would be reasonable to assume that some of my characters, both in the Montana Romance series and in my Hot on the Trail series, would have passed the time putting together puzzles.

But the height of puzzle popularity came with the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense too. By that time, most puzzles were made of cardboard. They were no longer cut out by hand, but rather die-cut. That basically means they were cut by a giant puzzle-shaped cookie cutter. They were the perfect form of cheap entertainment in an era where money was tight. They were time-consuming, recyclable, and they could bring people together.

My current obsession

My current obsession

I always remember having puzzles around in our house growing up. They were the kind of thing that we did on summer vacation or on a rainy day. This was before video games were invented. Yes, for all you young people out there, now you know what we did to entertain ourselves before we were glued to an electronic device. We enjoyed puzzles at our house, but I’ll never forget going to visit my cousins when they were in the middle of doing a puzzle.

My cousins’ dad, Tom, had a rule for doing puzzles in his house. First you would lay out all of the pieces, face up. Then, no matter how big the puzzle was, you weren’t allowed to touch a piece unless you knew exactly where it fit. If you were wrong, you were done. If he was being generous, he would let you put together the border pieces first and then the rule would only apply to the middle. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to look at the picture on the front of the box either. This was some serious puzzling!

So did your family have any rules about doing puzzles? Do you still do them? Leave a comment and let me know!


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4 thoughts on “How Old Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

  1. Hi, Merry! Yes, we were big puzzlers at our house too. My mom had similar rules to your cousin’s dad – lay out all the pieces first, do the border next, no looking at the box. We did a ton of puzzles when we lived overseas because there was no TV over there yet (it was the early 60s). I got to the point where I could work the puzzles so fast, I would turn them upside down to work them, based on shape alone. Probably explains a lot about me today! 🙂 This is interesting stuff. Do you know if puzzling was strictly an American past time or did Brits work them in the Victorian era? Thanks for a great post, Merry!

    • I’m pretty sure puzzles were popular in Victorian England too. John Spilsbury, that guy who made the first jigsaw puzzle, was English, after all.

      I’ve never been brave enough to turn a puzzle over and do it without a picture, but I know of people who have. Plus, have you seen the two-sized puzzles? They have a different image on each side of the pieces, so you can never really be sure if you’re looking at the right side or not!

  2. Hi Merry,
    Puzzles have been a source of entertainment in my family for over 90 years. My Grandmother was a lover of puzzles and card games. When we had family holiday time there would always be a table with a large puzzle on it. The rules were simple. Borders first then sort all remaining pieces by color. We always tried to finish the puzzle before everyone went home. As the families grew the number of puzzle tables did also. With one table for the young children, one for the older grandchildren and one for the adults. However no matter your age you could work on any puzzle. I think this is where my cousins and I learned cooperation, patience, and problem solving skills. My husband and I still work on puzzles and we are in our 60’s.
    When we were around eight my grandmother taught all of us how to play solitaire and double solitaire. She would absolutely love computer solitaire if she was still alive. Do you know if games like solitaire go back to the Victorian age?

    • Hi Pamela! I’m not 100% sure that solitaire goes back to the Victorian era, but logic tells me it must. Card games have been around even longer than puzzles, and I think it makes sense that someone, somewhere along the way must have invented a solitary game. But now I have to go look it up. 😉

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