Pandemic Puzzles by Lori L. Lake

A CHALLENGING FAVORITE! The Rare Book Library – 1,000 pieces, White Mountain Puzzles.

Because of the Pandemic, and especially during most of 2020, I found myself with time on my hands, feeling lonely, and with nerves to quell. When you’re stressed, is there anything better than getting out a snack, turning on some good tunes, and putting together a jigsaw puzzle?

One thing that’s very nice about working a puzzle is that several people can participate, of any age, and since everyone’s focused on the puzzle, often some extremely interesting conversations will occur. No one’s looking each other in the eye, and for some reason, it’s easier to mention difficult topics. I have fond memories from my childhood of conversations with my mom, great aunts, and grandmothers. You also have total control. Do you want to put the edge together first? Separate pieces by colors and work on sections? Do a small section each day or a marathon? Avoid looking at the photo to make it harder? It’s your call!

I’ll share some of the puzzles I remembered to photograph during this time of “Pandemic Puzzles.” I also suggest that if you decide to do a 1,500, 2,000, or even bigger number of pieces, you might find trays useful such as those in the picture below. (These ones are made by Ravensburger and cost about fifteen bucks—I get no commission for mentioning that, btw.).

Separating out some of the 8 million pieces helps!

I found out a whole bunch about the creation of jigsaw puzzles. I thought they’d been around since the Chinese invented gunpowder and kites, but not so. John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver, created the first commercial jigsaw puzzle back in 1766, though oddly enough, a jigsaw was never used to make them. He originally called them “dissected maps.” The puzzle of “Europe divided into its kingdoms” (below) was drawn and hand-cut by Spillsbury in 1766 to use in geography lessons for young people.

A replica of John Spilsbury’s original “dissected map,” a puzzle of “Europe divided into its kingdoms”

Beginning in the late 18th century, jigsaw puzzles were made by painting a pretty picture on a flat, rectangular piece of wood, then cutting the wood into small pieces using a fretsaw. All that painting and cutting was time- and labor-intensive. The name “jigsaw” came to be associated with the puzzle around 1880 when fretsaws became the tool of choice for cutting the shapes, but that’s a misnomer since a jigsaw is nothing like a fretsaw. (Who knew?!)

An East Coast promontory; Main Street in a big city; and an Italian villa.

Cardboard jigsaw puzzles began to appear in the very late 1800s but were slow to replace wooden ones because manufacturers thought cardboard was cheap, and profit margins on wooden jigsaws were higher. By 1908, however, a full-blown puzzle craze hit the United States. The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines with no transition pieces overlapping two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blue areas (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening’s work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike children’s puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box.

Because wood puzzles had to be cut one piece at a time, they were expensive. A 500-piece puzzle typically cost $5 in 1908, far beyond the means of the average worker who earned only $50 per month. High society, however, embraced the new amusement. Peak sales occurred when the wealthier customers planned weekend puzzle parties in their homes or at country retreats.

These VERY “busy” puzzles are colorful enjoyment: A 1950s small town store; Broadway in NYC; and a VW Bug in a messy garage.

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, wooden puzzles were no longer the rage, and cardboard puzzles were extremely popular. They provided a cheap, long-lasting, reusable form of entertainment. With incomes depleted, stay-at-home amusements (puzzles, games, and cards) replaced most former outside entertainments (casual shopping and frequenting restaurants, dance halls, movie theaters, night clubs, etc.). Neighbors could trade their puzzles or work on a puzzle together, even including the kids. In 1933, at the peak of the craze, ten million puzzles for adults were selling per week. (OMG—really? There were only 126 million people in the US in 1933!)

In the last thirty years, puzzles have been popular enough, but guess when Americans flocked back to jigsaw puzzles like it was 1933 all over again? During the 2020-21 Pandemic! As a puzzle aficionado, I definitely noticed that all the best puzzles were snapped up everywhere I looked online, in stores, and even the thrift stores had been picked clean. Occasionally I found a boring or ugly one, but who wants that? As you can see from the examples throughout, I love color!

Round puzzles are a lot of fun, but the rounded edges are not as easy to fit together as you would think!

The most common layout for a thousand-piece puzzle is 38 pieces by 27 pieces, for an actual total of 1,026 pieces. Most 500-piece puzzles are 27 pieces by 19 pieces (513 total). I recently finished assembling the “Rare Library” puzzle that leads this article. It was 37 x 27 pieces, which is only 999. Did they cheat me? No, one good-sized piece near the middle was cut in half! Exactly 1,000 pieces after all.

“Family puzzles” of 100–550 pieces use a combination of small-, medium- and large-sized pieces, with each size going in one direction or towards the middle of the puzzle. This allows a family of different skill levels and hand sizes to work on the puzzle together. I have well over a hundred puzzles from companies like Springbok, Cobble Hill, Ravensburger, White Mountain, and Buffalo. During the Pandemic, many friends and neighbors swapped puzzles with me. (And I get a lot of puzzles for gifts, too.)

Love the cabin by the lake, and the lighthouse by the sea, though I try to avoid the mess there at RV campsite.
All were a blast to assemble though!

If you have some time on your hands, working a puzzle with a friend or neighbor can be a lot of fun. But don’t be like me and lose track of time, suddenly realizing it’s four o’clock in the morning, and you have to rise and shine at nine a.m.! I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened!

Because, believe it or not, puzzles are addictive!

Left-Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post covers; Center-A fantastically fun book puzzle I got as a gift; and Right-An unexpectedly difficult treasure box of craft and sewing notions.

27 comments

  1. I used to love doing jigsaws and yes I lost all track of time. Then my back problems prohibit leaning slightly forward and I found i couldn’t do them anymore but I found them on my iPad and now I do them every day. Very calming. I do miss tipping the box over to look for the outside pieces to join up first.

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    • I’m sorry you can’t work a jigsaw anymore, Margaret. I think the most fun aspect is when you get some energetic people together all committed to the task. And food and drink. And good tunes. 😉

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  2. Oh, Lori….jigsaw puzzles. One of the most annoying things in my life! My family are all puzzle doers and I am the oddball out! I don’t nearly have the attention span one needs!

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    • Ona, what a bummer. Don’t you just sit at the table and enjoy talking with them as they monkey with puzzle pieces?

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    • Renée – What a great site! I hadn’t seen that before. There’s something about the tactile nature of a physical puzzle that makes me happier than the online puzzles do. But Jigsaw Planet does have some really cool stuff!

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  3. I’m a big puzzle addict. I did grow up doing them with other family members, but these days they are definitely something I want to do all by myself. Nothing worse than someone picking up a piece and trying to jam it into a place it doesn’t fit! I must admit I sometimes wonder if I’m on the spectrum because there are days when my fingers just itch to sort out some pieces, even when I’m not going to be able to actually do the puzzle (lack of space or time.) For me doing jigsaws is like creating a mandala, very soothing/meditative, and, like mandalas, it’s much more about the doing than the final creation, which is why I have no problem breaking up the puzzle once it’s complete (something non-puzzlers often find very puzzling!)

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    • I feel the same as you do, Alison. I have to ration my puzzles (…”first finish those edits, update the royalties, and clean the bathroom, and then…”) so it’s a reward I let myself have. In the first three months of the pandemic I had a puzzle on the kitchen table all the time, one right after another. Each time I felt stressed or overwhelmed, I worked on the puzzle for a while, and I felt much better.

      I LOVE coloring mandalas, btw. Coloring is also a meditative thing for me. I ought to do a post on that!

      One other thing: I’m somewhat systematic about my assembly process. People who walk in, pick up a piece and look for where it belongs bewilder me. I lay out all the pieces, usually assemble the edge all around, and then I tend to group piles of pieces into colors or textures. Then I go from there. Everybody has their own way, but some are not compatible with my methods, and I *SO* understand how it feels when someone comes along and messes with your mojo!

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  4. I agree with Alison, puzzles are a great way to calm my nerves and decompress. The shelves full of them in our basement, drive my wife crazy. I have shared some of my “stash” with neighbors and friends, some have been sent as far as Ohio to LA! I’ve worked a few of the White Mountain puzzles you posted. I find them fun to work and the bright colors make me forget about a dreary day. I have a 3000 piece monster to start, but I may save it for this winter. Ya know I found another addiction, my Xbox and Call of Duty!

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    • Kim, that’s great that you share! Puzzles are a little gift that keeps on giving. I consider myself to be a “Completist.” I feel such a *huge* sense of satisfaction when I complete a project — a book, painting a room, watching a TV series to the end, mailing off a letter I labored over, finishing website updates, etc. Things left hanging make me feel stressed (and I’m stressed all the time lately because I have tasks I want to get done with the help of family and/or friends, but covid has been prevented that).

      Good luck on the 3000-piece monster. I would LOVE to work that with you! I hope you have a big table. My record is only 2000-pieces, and I vowed I would avoid the huge ones (1500 is good), but then my dad gave me a 2000-piece for my birthday, so I may do that one next.

      I LOVE LOVE LOVE the ones with book and library themes!

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    • Now that’s interesting, Kathy. I never thought of painting online. Last year I scheduled to take an acrylic painting class (first class scheduled for April 1 – ha ha ha…), but the pandemic quarantine blew that out of the water. I had bought all the supplies and have only broken them out once when Jessie Chandler came to visit. She’s an accomplished painter, so she showed me some stuff I have yet to try by myself. There’s something more soothing to me about actually holding a brush, working on a canvas, splashing real paint around. But it’s also amazing what the technology has become. Unbelievable stuff!

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  5. The puzzles are great! I really really really want to enjoy putting a puzzle together, but I just don’t enjoy them! My loss! 😜☹️

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    • Margaret, I think that a puzzle is a big commitment and takes a lot of time and concentration. Plus you have to be able to sit still for a lonnnng while… and some people just don’t enjoy that. I’m sure that if we all had our brains dissected, scientists would find some node or ganglion that puzzlers possess and non-puzzlers don’t have. And it’s also an acquired art. I’ve hooked a couple people in who hadn’t worked a puzzle since their youth, and they found new interest in it. Give it a try with friends, food, and tunes. Maybe you might like it better? 🙂

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    • Thanks, Sheila. I was surprised to find out what I did about the history of puzzles. I never knew a thing about their genesis. With I was nearby and we could do a puzzle together and swap stories about our lives!

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  6. Lori, it’s too bad you live so far away now. We could exchange puzzles! Melissa and I love doing them.., unless they are photos with too much sky or too many trees, etc.

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    • I KNEW there was a reason I shouldn’t have left Minnesota, Catherine! I never knew this about you and Melissa. We could have been having assembly parties for YEARS, dammit!

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  7. Lori! Who made the book one and the sewing notions one? They look like fun, and I haven’t done a puzzle for a little while. Thanks!

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    • I made all of those on my own, Patty, all of them in around the last 7 or 8 months. At some point I realized I ought to be taking a photo as I finished. Since you leave fairly nearby, I’d be happy to share those two. I know you probably have a ton that I’d love to do.

      And that’s one more thing to mention: I’ve redone puzzles over the years. You don’t have to be “done with it forever” when you take it apart and stow it away. They live on for a later visit!

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    • Patty, were you asking what COMPANY made the puzzles? I think one was Ravensberger and the other White Mountain.

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  8. Those are fabulous! I think I like the Rare Books Bookstore one best. I wish I had the room to do puzzles here. 4 people and an inquisitive rescue cat in a basement apartment nipped that idea in the bud, LOL!

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