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.).
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.
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?!)
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.
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!
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.)
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!