Growing up, my family was not a puzzling one; to clarify, we did not do jigsaw puzzles. Of course, we had small puzzle toys for our family of four children when we were young but I don’t remember doing jigsaw puzzles with my family or friends as a young child or teen.
I think I must have first fallen in love with jigsaws when my children were babies - when I had very short or very long stretches of time on my hands between their naps or after their bedtimes. We lived in Ireland at the time and the toy shops in Cork and Dublin were filled with wonderful European puzzles of rich scenes and thousands of pieces and they captivated me.
My puzzling bug hit hard over the next few decades and for the past thirty-five years, with few interruptions, there has usually been a jigsaw puzzle set up in my home. I’ve always received jigsaw puzzles as gifts from my families and friends who are aware of my hobby. Everyone who visits can rely on spending time with me chatting over a puzzle because Gerry and I always have a puzzle in the works on our family room coffee table. It sits on a spinning puzzle board with a removable acrylic cover that protects it from a grandchild’s tiny hands, spills from drinking glasses, and crumbs of cheese and crackers. We have an entire closet shelf devoted to jigsaw puzzles that we think we might do again or ones that lie in wait to be unwrapped and the box’s contents spilled. Or sometimes, we simply save the horribly challenging ones to share with friends whose lives we want to make difficult.
The history of the jigsaw puzzle is a relatively recent one; it’s only three hundred years old. In Anne Williams book, The Jigsaw Puzzle – Piecing Together a History (2004), she writes that jigsaw puzzles were first created in the mid-1700s as an educational tool for children. Ms. Williams is an economics professor at Bates College in Maine but is also a puzzle collector and puzzle historian.
Berkshire Puzzles, a company in Northampton, Massachusetts (they create handcrafted wooden puzzles) also attributes the first puzzles to cartographer John Spilsbury. Spilsbury created these learning tools by cutting up a wooden map of Great Britain with a jigsaw so that children could learn their geography. (Today, Spilsbury is also an online company that uses the cartographer’s name to offer puzzles of every type for sale.)
In the early 1900s, the jigsaw puzzle craze found its way from Europe and across the Atlantic to Salem, Massachusetts. That is where Parker Brothers began creating puzzles for the wealthy adult population who loved working puzzles, most often pictures of landscape and famous art. Game maker Milton Bradley soon joined the fun and during the Great Depression puzzles took off when they were first manufactured and mass-produced using die cuts and cardboard instead of the traditional wood and jigsaw machinery. They had become affordable to the common family.
The Consolidated Paper Company in Somerville, Massachusetts produced weekly Perfect Picture Puzzles for middle and lower class families. In Master Pieces: The Art History of Jigsaw Puzzles by Chris McCann (1999), the author refers to the Great Depression puzzling craze in the 1930s as the Great Puzzle Panic. Jigsaw puzzles, pieced by a multitude of American families, created the perfect, cheap family entertainment during a difficult time. And, back in the box, the puzzle could be taken out again and again. A radio and a puzzle made up the family together time.
Puzzles are now created by so many companies you can search for hours on the internet for both the companies that sell them and companies that make them. My favorite puzzlemaker is Eric Dowdle Folkart Puzzles and one reason is that the company will send you a new puzzle if you are missing a piece. All Dowdle puzzles are wonderfully artistic and depict scenes from across the USA and the world. The majority of Dowdle puzzles are 500 and 1000 pieces and are moderately difficult to complete. Other great puzzle companies are Ravensburger and Heye in Germany and White Mountain Puzzles and Master Pieces in the United States. The Puzzle Warehouse online store carries puzzles made by 80 manufacturers.
1000-piece puzzles are a perfect size to work on at the dining room table, a folding card table, or some larger coffee tables. The Puzzle Warehouse boasts that Ravensburger currently has the record of making the largest puzzle – at 32,256 pieces it measures 17 by 6 feet when completed. Their 32,000-piece puzzle of New York City will set you back about $300 or about a penny each piece.
Wooden puzzles are still crafted by companies like Berkshire Puzzle in New Hampshire and others. You can have your own puzzle made by companies who will take your high resolution photographs and make them into puzzles of various sizes. Jigsaws are made two-sided or three-dimensional. A traditionalist, I still like my puzzles flat, one-sided, and with no particular mystery to its construction.
So, what does this have to do with your library here in Norwood?
This past winter, we added a wonderful spinning puzzle board that sits in a corner on the second floor. Not only do we have dozens of puzzles to lend (once we find out all the pieces are intact), but we have an ongoing puzzle for patrons to complete. We have received donations of puzzles and purchased some for the library. We’ve even had a puzzle-share with the Morse Institute (the public library in neighboring Natick.)
Do people really come to the library to work on jigsaw puzzles? You bet they do. Sometimes visitors to the puzzle table complete a 1000-piece puzzle in a single day. Puzzlers come for different reasons – to get out of the house, to meet friends after work, to spend a few moments in quiet solitude, or to exercise their brains. It is becoming commonly believed that jigsaw puzzle-making may help to offset the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. They also come for different seasons – to enjoy the cozy warmth or the cool air conditioning on the library’s second floor.
Stop by the library and work on our current ongoing puzzle or browse our collection of jigsaw puzzles to check out. It’s always something new at the library!