A Brief History of Jigsaw Puzzles – From Educational Tool to Entertainment


Jigsaw puzzles started 250 years ago as an educational aid for children of the wealthy. Now, they are a popular pastime and entertainment for everybody.

Around 1766 John Spilsbury, a London mapmaker and engraver mounted one of his maps on wood and cut around the borders of the countries using a fine saw. His “dissected puzzle,” as it was called,was meant to be used as a teaching device to aid rich British children learn geography.

The idea slowly caught on and by the 1780s others were creating puzzles centered on famous paintings and the English monarchy. By the mid-1800s, “dissections” had spread to the rest of Europe and North America and were popular with adults as well as children. Queen Victoria, and other royalties, were said to be fans of them.

Jigsaw Puzzle Improvements

Because they were made of fine woods and involved considerable time in making, dissections were only affordable to upper society during much of the 1800s. Then, the invention of the treadle saw and the development of die-cut cardboard “jigsaw” puzzles led to lower prices and created a new consumer group — the working class family.

These improvements and resultant lower prices, along with the development of interlocking pieces and more intricate puzzles, created a jigsaw puzzle boom. Demand for the puzzles became so great that in 1909 the American game manufacturer, Parker Brothers, temporarily stopped making other games in order to devote its entire factory output to puzzle production.

The Jigsaw Puzzle Boom

The puzzles reached the peak of their popularity during the Great Depression with brands such as Chad Valley and Victory in Great Britain and North America’s Parker Pastime and Viking producing puzzles in large numbers. Providing a relatively cheap form of entertainment, puzzle sales reached a weekly peak of ten million in 1933.

New marketing techniques, as well as the need for low cost amusement, helped to expand sales. Public libraries and drugstores began to rent puzzles for three to ten cents depending on the size. Companies gave away puzzles with each purchase of their product. Newsstands featured the “Jig of the Week,” each based on a theme such as “Movie Cut-Ups,” and sold upwards of 800,000 monthly.

It was at this time, also, that two out-of-work carpenters, Frank Ware and John Henriques, started making jigsaw puzzles on a dining room table. The company that they founded, Par Puzzles, has since become known as the “Rolls Royce of Jigsaw Puzzles,” and its clientele includes celebrities, businessmen, and royalty.

The Post Jigsaw Puzzle Boom

The “Golden Age of Puzzles” was over by the end of World War II, but jigsaws still continue to amuse both young and old. Although some companies or their subsidiaries, such as Pastime and Victory, are no longer producing puzzles, others have risen to take their place.

Stave Puzzles, begun in 1974, features original artwork and has introduced innovations such as pop-up, three-dimensional, and “trick” puzzles. Springbok Puzzles began making high quality cardboard puzzles in the 1960s, many of them based on fine art and photography.

Jigsaw Puzzle Trivia

The Largest Jigsaw Puzzle. In terms of number of pieces, it would be “Life,” made by EDUCA of Barcelona, Spain in 2007. The puzzle is 14’ x 5 ’ and consists of 24,000 pieces.

The Smallest Jigsaw Puzzle. Small can mean many things. One candidate is “King Tut,” a Swedish puzzle that is 2” x 2.5” and has about 90 pieces.

The Hardest Jigsaw Puzzle. Here again, many arguments can be made. Many experts consider the most difficult to be 1965 Springbok Puzzles’ “Convergence,” based on Jackson Pollock’s painting of the same name.

Most Expensive Jigsaw Puzzles. Some puzzles made by Stave have sold for over $1000. Puzzles made by Par Puzzles, which are always one-of-a-kind, have sold for as much as $5000.