A Detailed History of the classic jigsaw

I don't know about you but I love a jigsaw puzzle round the dinner table with coffee after Sunday roast. It’s hard to imagine a time when jigsaws didn’t exist, but the history is more interesting than you might think.

Originally, Jigsaws were not for adults and they were not for entertainment purposes. The first jigsaw was thought to be made by the cartographer and engraver John Spilsbury in 1760 when he mounted one of his maps on hardwood, cut around the borders of the countries using a fine bladed marquetry saw and sold the pieces in boxes for children to assemble. It is thought these “dissection maps”, as they were known, were given to King George III and Queen Charlotte and used to teach geography. Many other manufacturers copied this idea and added historical scenes and bible stories to the concept.

In 1880, the treadle saw was introduced and the puzzles previously known as "dissections" became known as jigsaws – despite the fact they were generally made with a fretsaw. Towards the end of the century, plywood started to be used with illustrations glued or painted on the front. On the back of very old jigsaws you can see the pencil markings which they used to see where to cut the plywood.

It was not until the 20th century that cardboard puzzles started to appear. These were "die-cut", which is a process whereby thin strips of metal with sharpened edges are twisted into intricate patterns and fastened on a plate, much like a giant cookie cutter, this is then placed in a press which is pressed down on the cardboard to cut it.

Jigsaw puzzles only started appealing to adults in the 1900s. The jigsaw puzzle industry saw a huge surge, with wooden puzzles and cardboard puzzles both being sold in abundance. The wooden puzzles dominated the market and this is thought to be because cardboard was considered a cheap and poor-quality alternative. However, it may have more to do with manufacturers receiving a much higher profit margin from wooden puzzles!

At the turn of the century, Saturday mornings in puzzle shops such as Pastimes in America and Victory in Britain, would be full of wealthy aristocrats and middle classes swarming to choose their puzzle for their country retreat or weekend house party. It was a luxury pastime for the rich, to rival bridge and card games.

Puzzles became much more intricate and detailed for the adult market. Although they were very different from todays, since pieces were not interlocking and there was no picture to use as a guide. The pieces would often be cut in line the colour, meaning there was no obvious colour transition to link the two pieces together. A day’s work could be blown away with a sneeze.

During the Great Depression, jigsaw puzzle sales soared. It provided a cheap and recyclable form of entertainment, much more accessible than the pictures or shows. It also provided an escape from the difficult lives people were living, as well as a humble success in times when hard work didn’t ensure many victories in the job world. At this time, many out of work architects, carpenters and skilled craftsmen began to cut jigsaw puzzles in home workshops and sold or rented them out locally.

Par Puzzles was one such local company to emerge; theirs became known as the “Rolls Royce of Jigsaws”. Frank Ware and John Henriques were young men with no job prospects who cut their first puzzle at the dining room table in 1932. Despite other puzzle companies working to cut costs, the two entrepreneurs continued to improve their craft and the quality of their jigsaws. They marketed them to affluent movie stars, industrialists and royalty. They specialised in customised puzzles and often cut their customers names or birthdays into the puzzle. They liked to tease their customers with misleading titles and they used to add “par times” which were impossible for everyone except the most expert puzzle assemblers.

In autumn of 1932 there started a die-cut “Jig of the Week” in which a new jigsaw puzzle would be released every week. People would race their friends to be the first to purchase and assemble the weekly jigsaw and see the finished design.

The market changed in World War Two since the price of wages rises meant that the individually cut wooden puzzles no longer seemed profitable and cardboard puzzles became much more popular. As supply of wooden puzzles reduced, Stave puzzles was founded to satisfy wooden puzzlers needs. This company  used to commission original artwork that was specially designed to interact with the cutting patterns. They use to experiment with 3D figures and free standing pieces assembling such extraordinary things as a three dimensional carousel.  They also liked to invent trick pieces, which fitted together in several different wrong ways but with only one correct solution.

The puzzles we stock today at Wood and Son are from JHG jigsaws. Much like Par puzzles, JHG jigsaws was a home grown family project. They are based at a converted farm in the beautiful countryside of Dorset, where they manufacture a wide range of jigsaw puzzles. They commission local artists to paint the gorgeous scenes for their puzzles, which focus around beautiful classic cars, trains and scenes from the golden age of jigsaws. They use materials that are as eco friendly as they can find; the puzzle board and boxes are made from recycled card; the paper for the print is FSC certifiesd and the glue is starch based, which all reduces their carbon footprint.

We love the designs, and enjoy them even more understanding the long and beautiful history of intelligent adults escaping the world for a few hours to complete a jigsaw with the people they love.