A Brief History of Jigsaw Puzzles

A Brief History of Jigsaw PuzzlesJigsaw puzzles aren’t a new kind of toy. They’ve been around for nearly 200 years. That’s right; the humble jigsaw puzzle has a history that is older than most families can trace their lineage. But how did jigsaw puzzles catch on and remain popular for so long?

Have jigsaw puzzles changed over the ages, or are they more or less the same as what they were back then? In this article, we’ll walk you through the long history of jigsaw puzzles so that you’ll know exactly how the world’s most common puzzle came to be.

What Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

First, knowing the concept of a jigsaw puzzle is necessary to understand their history. Nearly everyone is familiar with the idea of a bunch of puzzle pieces with a printed image on the front that needs to be re-assembled.

This basic understanding of jigsaw puzzles doesn’t capture their full complexity, however.

Jigsaw puzzles are more than just a bunch of chopped pieces which can be placed together.

The key features of jigsaw puzzles include:

  • Tightly interlocking pieces
  • A series of cues which instruct the user where to start
  • Images on only one side of each piece
  • A comprehensive set of pieces to create a picture
  • Only one correct solution to the puzzle

These key features were not developed overnight. Regarding the engineering of the puzzles themselves, getting all of these features right would take a lot of work.

In fact, the very presence of starting point cues was purely an accident in the first jigsaw puzzles. Subsequent jigsaw puzzles have incorporated the idea of guiding the user through the experience to make it easier — or harder.

Traditionally, the subject matter of jigsaw puzzles includes:

  • Scenes of nature
  • Maps
  • Works of art
  • Buildings
  • Historical panoramas

Now, practically any image can be made into a jigsaw puzzle with the right software. But the early jigsaw puzzle makers didn’t have that luxury.

Photo by Mon Œil via CC BY 2.0

How Were Jigsaw Puzzles First Made?

The first jigsaw puzzles were invented sometime in the early 1700s though the idea of putting puzzle pieces together to form an image is ancient. The first jigsaw puzzle was commercialized in 1760 in London.

Early jigsaw puzzles were used as aids to teaching cartography and geography to students in schools. Maps were painted onto parchment and then cut along country lines. These jigsaw puzzles were not very reusable, but they were useful aids in school.

Because they were puzzles made from wood, the early jigsaw puzzles were not very portable. Indeed, because they were often constructed from large wooden blocks, the early jigsaw puzzles were difficult to assemble.

Imperfections in the grade of the wood might make it very difficult for pupils to fit two pieces of the puzzle together. Furthermore, as the wood expanded and contracted with the moisture in the air, students often found that puzzles they had assembled correctly were impossible to separate.

These issues kept jigsaw puzzles in niche applications early on. While entertaining, few people had enough money to purchase them for the sake of education, nevermind for entertainment.

For a long while, jigsaw puzzles were the educational tools of the very rich. Kings would use jigsaw puzzles to teach their young princes geography in the name of preparing them to invade a foreign land.

At the time, jigsaw puzzles were also used to train cartographers on how to assemble maps from smaller maps depicting fragments of terrain. It’s unknown how effective this method was or how intensively it was used, but it seems to have faded out of popularity by the late 1800s.

Early jigsaw puzzles were made with Marquette saws or other saw implements. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that a jigsaw was used to create a puzzle, thus coining the term jigsaw puzzle.

A slightly more modern approach to the early jigsaw manufacturing went roughly as follows:

  • An image is picked
  • The image is painted onto a thin wooden board
  • A jigsaw cuts the board into hundreds of tiny pieces, one piece at a time
  • The pieces are counted, packaged, and sold

Jigsaw puzzles saw widespread use through the early 1900s, with their popularity first peaking during the 1930s. As few people had much money at the time, jigsaw puzzles were very popular because they were inexpensive and reusable.

People would purchase a jigsaw puzzle for their family to solve, enjoy it several times, then swap jigsaw puzzles with the family of a friend. In this way, each jigsaw puzzle would see a lot of use and deliver a lot of entertainment at a minimum cost.

If families were too poor to purchase art for their home, they could also put their completed jigsaw puzzles in a frame and hang it on the wall for an attractive alternative.

This period saw the rise of retaining completed jigsaw puzzles for the sake of having an aesthetically appealing ornament and for bragging about having finished the puzzle.

During this period, advertisers quickly realized that jigsaw puzzles had an enormous marketing potential. Product placement began to seep into jigsaw puzzles everywhere, and many jigsaw puzzles were produced explicitly for advertising.

Today, these iconic early jigsaw puzzle advertisements of Coke bottles and other related products are viewed as cultural artifacts. At the time, they were simply discounted entertainment which featured a familiar commercial subject.

Jigsaw Puzzles Go Mainstream

The advent of the cardboard jigsaw puzzle was the push that jigsaw puzzles needed to finally have a wide distribution. Cardboard jigsaw puzzles were fast and cheap to produce, easy to reuse, and enjoyable for consumers.

As soon as World War 2 ended, jigsaw puzzles were everywhere to be found. People even started to sell kits which allowed consumers to make their jigsaw puzzles using images which they could copy onto the cardboard.

During this period, jigsaw puzzles started to gain in complexity. Larger pictures were turned into puzzles. More complicated puzzle designs were created. Puzzles started to have exponentially more pieces.

Eventually, some jigsaw puzzles would have thousands of pieces. Many would have standard sized pieces, whereas others would have extremely small or large pieces. The size of the piece quickly became related to the perceived complexity of the piece.

Consumers rapidly caught on to the idea that jigsaw puzzles with larger pieces were intended for children, whereas jigsaw puzzles with smaller pieces were for adults who were jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts. It was no longer odd to spend hours or even days assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Photo by Rob Mahan via CC BY 2.0

Over time, it would become more and more socially acceptable to spend long periods assembling a puzzle. Likewise, families began to see assembling jigsaw puzzles as a collaborative activity.

Rather than solving jigsaw puzzles in isolation, the nuclear family could gather around the living room in an iconic scene. The image of jigsaw puzzles as a family activity rapidly took off and contributed to their popularization.

Because jigsaw puzzles were so easy and intuitive to get into, everyone in the family could contribute with the same effectiveness. It was as challenging for an adult to assemble the puzzle as it was for a child.

The social nature of jigsaw puzzles has somewhat persisted into the present day.

Modern Jigsaw Puzzles

In the 1980s, jigsaw puzzles started to become more involved than before. Rather than changing the size of puzzle pieces, manufacturers started to break into the third dimension as a way to increase the difficulty of the puzzles.

3D jigsaw puzzles featured curved pieces which could support the weight of each other such that consumers could build structures. These jigsaw puzzles were difficult to produce and hard to solve but offered the prospect of a stunning reward.

At present, the size of jigsaw puzzles has ballooned beyond the wildest dreams of the early jigsaw puzzle creators. The world’s largest jigsaw puzzles have over 45,000 pieces. A few one-off jigsaw puzzles have had over 500,000 pieces.

The physical size of jigsaw puzzles has also expanded. Several jigsaw puzzles have been created with over five kilometers worth of area. Of course, these mega jigsaw puzzles typically have pieces which are much larger than average, but they’re still impressive.

Because of how easy jigsaw puzzles are to produce, they’ve gained additional momentum as a marketing tool. Many high-end goods distribute custom-made advertising jigsaw puzzles to prospective customers — or to customers who have already purchased their product.

These jigsaw puzzles are typically not the hardest to solve or the prettiest when completed. But they are effective bonuses which might make customers purchase the product when they wouldn’t otherwise.

The modern era has also seen the rise of jigsaw puzzles being disposable methods of entertainment. It’s common for people to purchase jigsaw puzzles to leave at their vacation homes. Some people even send customized jigsaw puzzles to their neighbors as part of their holiday cards.

Wedding invitations and weddings in general have also become associated with jigsaw puzzles. Many couples offer customized puzzles featuring their wedding or invitation to their guests.

These puzzles offer a fond memory to those who assemble them, or an engaging challenge to those who are assembling them before the wedding. In these promotional capacities, jigsaw puzzles are not emphasized for their difficulty but rather for their sentimental content.

Rather than trading puzzles, few people bother to do much of anything with their jigsaw puzzles when they are finished.

Luckily, jigsaw puzzles are recyclable, which means that their impact on the environment is minimal when they are produced and discarded.

Digital Jigsaw Puzzles

In the modern era, jigsaw puzzles have made the leap to the digital world. Many software products allow for users to create their jigsaw puzzles and solve an infinite number of puzzles on their computers.

These digitized puzzles lack the enjoyable physical aspects of older jigsaw puzzles, but they are far more price effective per puzzle. Furthermore, many different puzzles can be worked on at the same time when using a digital platform, which would be difficult if the pieces were physical.

Digitized puzzles tend to struggle when it comes to the more complex 3D designs. With the advent of VR technology, these difficult niches may soon open up to further iterations of 3D puzzles.

The Future Of Jigsaw Puzzles?

It’s unclear what the future holds for jigsaw puzzles. The digital jigsaw puzzles do not appear to have as widespread acceptance as the plain old cardboard jigsaw puzzles of yesteryear.

Likewise, while 3D jigsaw puzzles have attained some notoriety, for most users they are too complicated to be worth the time. Few children play with jigsaw puzzles these days; the jigsaw puzzle community is largely populated by adults.

Nonetheless, jigsaw puzzles remain inexpensive, easy to produce, and a great way to have family fun for a few hours. Many offices have in-progress jigsaw puzzles laid out in recreational areas for employees to assemble for a few minutes at a time while they take a break.

Furthermore, the therapeutic value of jigsaw puzzles is beginning to be better understood. People with Alzheimer’s disease are being encouraged to use jigsaw puzzles to stay as sharp as possible because of how effective they are at providing a workout for the brain.

Jigsaw puzzles might be useful tools in teaching children spatial relationships and persistence, too. When they assemble a jigsaw puzzle, children must build images in their head and correlate the shapes of the pieces with the shapes they have at hand.

By focusing on how the shapes interact with each other and how each one can fit into the larger picture, children learn to evaluate the world and interpret it in a way which allows them to accomplish their goals.

For the most difficult jigsaw puzzles, children can also learn about 3D visualization and load balancing, which might be a great preamble to a career in science or engineering. Young artists can gain experience with the great works of yesteryear by assembling jigsaw puzzles, too.

Can these functions continue the jigsaw puzzle legacy? The pieces still need to be put together before we can answer that question.

Brett Gordon

The brains behind The Toy Report. Having clocked tons of time in toys research and online resource development, today, Brett is dedicated to making The Toy Report a trusted space in the world of toy reviews and recommendations.