How Did Jigsaw Puzzles Become a Popular Pastime?

2021.02.08.

There are probably fewer ways to keep your hands busy than doing a jigsaw puzzle. The same goes for relieving stress or making something creative. For whatever reasons you like to play, the jigsaw puzzle is certainly one of many people's favourite pastime. This intricate game is made up of many unique interlocking pieces. They come in many levels of difficulty, as well as hundreds or even thousands of pieces. The completed images they start off with, are as endless as there are images for reproduction. From its traditional form, artists and craftsmen have continued with exploring the design possibilities, taking an age-old activity and pastime, and bringing it bang up to the present day with reversible or spherical jigsaw puzzles. 

Today we tend to look at the jigsaw puzzle as a leisure activity, yet its original design was to aid in the teaching of geography. Let's have a dive into the history of the jigsaw puzzle and see what elements continue to help it remain an all-time favourite pastime.

Jigsaw Origins

It was back in 1760, that the British cartographer, and engraver, John Spilsbury first invented the jigsaw puzzle. He would fix maps of Europe to hardwood boards and then cut out the countries along national lines using a marquetry saw. These were called "dissected maps" and were in use to help teach young children geography. Because the pieces needed to be cut out by hand, these initial puzzles were extremely expensive. A 500 piece jigsaw puzzle was priced at a whopping Ł5. Considering the average salary was Ł45 a month, this put the puzzle well beyond the reach of ordinary people. Never the less, these puzzles quickly became very popular with the upper classes, and it wasn't long before Spilsbury started to produce puzzles based around other maps, namely, of the world, Europe, America, Africa, England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Even the Royal Family played with them. 

New Manufacturing Methods

With the arrival of the Second Industrial Revolution, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the puzzle making process was improved significantly. The modernisation of the lithographic printing process along with newly invented inks allowed for both higher quality printing on wooden surfaces, along with greater accuracy. The use of hardwoods like mahogany was discontinued, and manufacture started using the cheaper plywood. This was formed by layering sheets of wood and then gluing them together. This made the puzzles considerably lighter as well as making them easier to cut. The newly invented foot treadle allowed for an increase in production numbers as well as allowing for the making of yet more intricate interlocking pieces.

Not Just For The Kids

Though the jigsaw puzzle was originally a teaching device for children, adults started to take an interest. Before long manufacturers were producing jigsaws for "children of all ages". These older puzzles were exceedingly difficult. For a start, lines were cut along colour outlines, meaning that there were no transitional pieces. Furthermore these pieces did not interlock as today's puzzles do. A careless sleeve dragged over the puzzle or a sneeze could undo hours of labour. To make matters more interesting, there was no finished artwork with the puzzle, so you had no idea what the finished jigsaw was meant to look like. And they often came with either vague or deliberately misleading titles.

And The Name?

As you've probably guessed, the name "jigsaw" comes from the name of the specialised saws used to produce them. These saws were not common in the mid to late 1700s, and it would e over a hundred years later that they would become commonplace.

A 1930s Revival

During the American Great Depression, the sale of jigsaw puzzles went through the roof. The novel concept of a weekly jigsaw puzzle in 1932 saw a huge resurgence in popularity as people rushed out to buy their weekly puzzle in an effort to be the first to complete it. In 1933, jigsaw puzzles were selling at a rate of 10 million per week. New manufacturing processes did away with wood as a base and instead, the puzzles were printed on thick cardboard using a new die-cutting technique. This bought the production cost down and made this a cheap recreational activity for poor families. Jigsaws provided a great and much needed reusable form of entertainment. Because the overall production costs were so cheap, many advertisers started using jigsaw puzzles as a form of creative advertising used for promotional purposes. It wasn't long before images of fairy tales, ships, nature, and castles started to become popular. By the turn of the 20th century, cardboard jigsaw puzzles were much more popular than wooden ones. 

How They're Made Today

Today's puzzles are produced using glued images to cardboard sheets which are then cut using steel blades that press down on the sheets of material as they cut. Another more modern method is by using laser cutting. This allows for the use of a huge range of materials to be used instead of card. Many of today's jigsaw puzzles are made using acrylic or even steel. And it's thanks to laser cutting that the old-style jigsaw puzzle has been given a thoroughly modern feel.

Amazing Jigsaw Puzzles

Thanks in part to the Covid restrictions, there has been a renewed interest in jigsaw puzzles. Because almost the whole world is in lock-down, the old and humble jigsaw puzzle is enjoying a renaissance. Simple to play and yet somehow so rewarding, new designers are putting together some fantastic jigsaw puzzles to everyone's delight. Thanks to internet shopping, thousands are sold daily via Esty or Ebay. Once completed, many people hang them triumphantly on the wall. 

The Modern Jigsaw Puzzle

Even animation studies like Yelldesign have begun creating unique and artistic jigsaws that make you look twice. Another design studio called Nervous System has been pushing the boundaries of jigsaw making. They use CAD software to create what can only be best described as 3D jigsaw puzzles. These are essentially maze-like structures. 

Design studio Nervous System has also been pushing the boundaries of puzzle making with their series of highly unique and extremely challenging Geode puzzles. These maze-like jigsaws are created by a computer simulation that creates natural simulations in the shape, pieces, and image.
 

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