Friday, April 2, 2021

Puzzling Times

 by Patti Sherry-Crews

Among my favorite childhood memories were the evenings I spent with my grandmother who lived next door to us, putting together jigsaw puzzles. We ate Ritz crackers with pimento cheese from a jar while watching westerns on TV together: Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Bat Masterson, and The High Chaparral among others. I credit the reason I wrote my first historical western to those evenings and the spark to my imagination it lit.

This last year I returned to jigsaw puzzles with a vengeance. These past months we always had a puzzle going in my house. And we weren’t alone in this. There were puzzle exchanges between friends, neighbors who set out used puzzles on porches free for the taking, and our local bookstore occasionally put out a cart with free puzzles. Stores along the main shopping street near me had jigsaw puzzle displays in their windows—including clothing stores who didn’t normally stock jigsaw puzzles. It seemed jigsaw puzzles were suddenly everywhere. There are even companies now who will even make jigsaw puzzles out of images you send them, so there was that going on (fun gifts!).

I got to wondering how long we’ve been piecing together fragments to make a picture.

First Jigsaw Puzzles:

English cartographer and engraver, John Spilsburg is credited with making the first jigsaw puzzle 1767. Called “dissected maps,” he pasted maps unto wood and cut them into pieces. The first puzzles of this kind were used to educate children about geography. And thus, it went for about a century and a half.

The First Jigsaw Puzzle

The Early 20th Century:

Around 1900, puzzle mania hit adults. Early jigsaw puzzles were a challenge. There was no image on the box to guide the user, so the completed image was a surprise. The pieces didn’t interlock, and if you’ve ever worked a cheap puzzle where the pieces don’t fit together well, you know how frustrating this can be. Also the pieces were cut along color lines so without clues like a piece that is part roof and part sky, for instance, it makes it much harder to fit all together.

The early puzzles were hand-cut wooden puzzles, which were expensive and out of reach for middle and working classes. Now, if you were wealthy, it was a common practice to buy a jigsaw puzzle to entertain your weekend house guests.

Then the Parker Brothers of game making fame got into the act with their Pastime brand. The Pastime puzzles featured interlocking pieces, some in whimsical shapes such as birds, shoes, cats, initials, and numbers, etc.

The author's own wooden puzzle in progress, note inclusion of recognizable shapes. (maybe aParker Bros. Pastime puzzle?)

The Great Depression:

During this troubled time, the jigsaw puzzle saw an upsurge in popularity as people sought emotional escape. With money tight, people stayed home more often, rather than go to restaurants or shows, and working together on a puzzle was an alternative entertainment. And at a time when morale was low, being able to start and complete a task successfully was a morale booster. I puzzling people of 2020 can relate.

Wooden puzzles were still expensive, so libraries and some stores offered rentals.

 Many out of work carpenters turned to puzzle-making in their basements and garages. Then a man named Charles Russel attached a saw blade to his wife’s sewing machine, and the rest is "jigsaw" history.

Mass Production:

The innovation of die-cut cardboard puzzles made jigsaw puzzles affordable to a larger number of people with costs of ten to twenty five cents. Families looked forward to the “weeklies,” new puzzles put out each week. Companies started to give away free puzzles to promote their products.

Some companies, such as Par Puzzles, continued to make wooden puzzles, but the die-cut cardboard variety took over the market. 

I'm grateful to Grandma Sherry for introducing me to jigsaw puzzles, which has always been an activity that allows me to daydream and make up my own tales. And I'm forever thankful for all the evenings I spent together with my grandma when I was little and for all the subsequent evenings spent with my own family over puzzles.

Are you a fan of jigsaw puzzles? There are ways to put together puzzles. Obviously, finding the edges and the corners is the universal way to start. But then I'm more of a big picture, work by colors person, while my husband is a sort by shape puzzlers who has pieces laid out in trays and cookie sheets. He likes to spend hours sorting pieces, while I like to find a few recognizable images like animals or buildings and work out from those. Together we've ploughed through dozens of puzzles this year alone!

How about you? What's your jigsaw methods?

(Thanks to Anne D. Williams who wrote Origins of Jigsaw Puzzles, and the article used to write this post)


Julie Lence said...

Great blog, Patti! I enjoy puzzles, but mostly do them on the computer now. But like you, I remember doing them with my grandmother. We did (or she did) one of a monkey. Most of the colors were the same, so as a young kid, I gave up easily, but she didn't. Thank you for sharing!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Julie! I've done them on the computer too. I look for puzzles that are just the right level of challenge. Too hard is no fun as are too easy! Have a great weekend.

Andrea Downing said...

I loved doing these as a child but nowadays have lost the patience. At some stage, I was given a box of five jigsaws of beautiful Kay Nielsen illustrations I adored his work in my children's books so these puzzles were treasured. No idea what happened to them; probably lost in a hurricane flood one year.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Those Kay N illustrations are lovely! I can see how they'd make great puzzles. Yes, it does take patience and it helps to be a bit obsessive. I read how at the beginning of the adult jigsaw craze there were articles written about people forgetting to eat or neglecting chores because they couldn't tear themselves away with cries of "one more piece!." I definitely would have been the weekend house guest huddled over a jigsaw puzzle drinking a pink gin or sherry or whatever else they were drinking back then, Hahaha. Now I'm sad you lost your puzzles!