The puzzling world of puzzles

the puzzling world of puzzles

Some of Spilsbury’s early work

The nights remain chilly and it seems like the sun continues to go down at an early hour. What’s a vintage enthusiast to look forward to during these long months, after the retreat of the twinkling glow of the holidays? Winter-time is one of my favorite times to work on a jigsaw puzzle. (Perhaps because hot chocolate pairs very well with puzzles!) I’ve just started on a Frank Lloyd Wright one and it’s consumed my entire dining room table. This project is now happily living at the epicenter of household activity. The edges of the table hold collections of bits that I’ve figured out, but haven’t yet found all their companions. New challenges unfold during each puzzle session and it turns out these kinds of undertakings are good for your brain (much like we discussed in an earlier post). But where did these beautiful creations come from and what do you look for in collecting vintage examples? Join us as we learn the answers to these questions and more in this feature about the puzzling world of puzzles.

Puzzles would have been seen as a relatively new invention to America’s founding fathers as the first puzzles were produced in Europe during the 1760s. These early puzzles were a celebration of the world in a time when empire building and exploration was happening on an unprecedented scale. The man largely credited with starting the puzzling craze is a gentleman by the name of John Spilsbury. He came from an artistic family (his elder brother is a well-known painter) and he spent his formative years as an apprentice to a cartographer and engraver. Over time he honed his skills, capturing & showing the ever-widening world to an eager crowd. When he struck out on his own he expanded into the world of publishing, with a focus on children’s literature. In 1766 at the age of 27, he blended these two disparate careers and the puzzle was born. Much like Luther Replogle, John had a passion for education. By reconstructing a fragmented map, kids learned about the world beyond their doorstep in a fun, imaginative way. The manufacturing of these original puzzles was a tedious process, yet the popularity continued to soar.

Approximately 100 years later the next evolution in the puzzling world took shape. The breakthrough was technological: advancements in sawing allowed puzzle makers to easily create (and re-create) curved cuts with dazzling efficiency. The saw that manufacturers favored soon became known as the jigsaw and the nickname “jigsaw puzzle” was born. By the 1900s the puzzle’s popularity reached new heights. In fact, articles were soon devoted to telling tale of the dangers of puzzle addiction. You see, by this time, the geographically-inclined puzzles of one’s youth had expanded to a whole universe of themes. In these days puzzling was much more difficult as designers didn’t focus on creating transitional pieces (i.e. a sliver of blue on one edge that you can match to another blue piece). Edges were cut at the break in color and you often didn’t quite know what picture you were constructing until the puzzle was complete. Talk about a frustrating adventure!

Despite all the advancements made in manufacturing, puzzling in the Victorian era largely remained an elite pursuit. The average cost of a puzzle at the turn of the century would be the equivalent of roughly $200 today (not exactly an easy amount of hard-earned wages to part with). But in time, this leisurely hobby moved beyond the classroom or the fancy parlors and into the mainstream. The next great wave of popularity occurred during the Great Depression when puzzles were often offered by retailers as a sort of “bonus” with purchase. This marketing concept helped make beleaguered consumers feel like they were getting their money’s worth and it also gave them a way to pass the time / distract them from the woes of this dark period. Many stores and publications would advertise a puzzle of the week to maintain demand. Following WWII puzzles again fell out of favor, but in recent years as people strive to find “device-free” activities puzzles are coming into vogue once more.

the puzzling world of puzzles

Pic by Tobias Klenze

A resurgence in vintage past-times is often coupled with renewed interest in collecting original artifacts. So what should a collector look for in vintage or antique puzzles? Firstly, it’s good to know who the big names are in the industry. Parker Brothers (with their branch known as Pastime Puzzles) is a major player. The division produced puzzles from the early 1900s until 1958. A Pastime Puzzle will often feature pieces cut into recognizable shapes – these “figure pieces” will make up about 10% of the total number of puzzle pieces. Not to be outdone, Milton Bradley also had a puzzle division known as the Premier Line. Other brands of note include Madmar, Zag-Zaw, and U-Nit. This article will provide you with some helpful links and for the serious collector, I recommend checking out this site in detail. As with any genre of collecting, you’ll want to review the condition of the puzzle (are all the pieces there and are they legible / well-maintained) as well as the condition of the box itself. Any sort of markings and literature make the find all the more fun because then you can embark on armchair detective-type research.

The first puzzles were created as a way to expand young minds and educate them about the wonderful world around them. Amazingly, today they have retained that original purpose but have also become a treasured part of our social fabric (and our blustery, cold winter evenings). Tell me, dear reader, are you also a puzzle addict? If so, tell us about some of your favorite puzzle memories in the comments…

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