There’s no doubt about it. Jigsaw puzzles are having a moment. While weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, many people stuck at home are coping with the situation by doing puzzles.
Specifically, jigsaw puzzles. Sales have surged since stay-at-home orders went into effect, and puzzle makers are having a hard time meeting the demand.
Ravensburger, the largest puzzle manufacturer in the world, is reporting a 370 percent increase in U.S. sales, compared to this same time last year, due to the pandemic. In April of 2019 the German company sold an average of seven puzzles a minute to North Americans, according to a company spokesman. This last April the figure was more like 20 puzzles a minute.
Ceaco, one of the largest manufacturer of jigsaw puzzles and games in the U.S., is experiencing a similar surge in sales. In one day last March the company sold more jigsaw puzzles than they had during the entire month of December, according to its president.
Why are jigsaw puzzles so popular right now? I can think of at least three reasons:
- Jigsaw puzzles are a great way to while away the hours when you’re stuck at home, as most of us are now. Puzzles are cheap, recyclable, and can be done alone or with others. They’re a tactile relief from TV screens and computer monitors.
- Puzzles are absorbing, much more so than other forms of at-home entertainment. You can spend hours looking for fragments of house or pieces of sky. Time just melts.
- And while you’re focused on a puzzle, it’s easy to forget about all the bad stuff going on the world, at least for a while. It’s a mental vacation, an escape from reality that won’t leave you with a hangover or regrets.
The Zen of jigsaw puzzling
When you dump a box of puzzle pieces on the table, all is chaos. Then you start sorting the pieces – perhaps by color, or maybe by edge pieces.
Slowly, you make order out of the chaos. As you work, an image begins to take shape before your eyes. You keep at it, fitting one piece at a time, figuring out its relationship to the whole.
When you get down to the last piece and the picture is complete, you feel utter success. You’ve done it! Life makes sense again, if only briefly.
Our current crisis isn’t the first time people have turned to jigsaw puzzles for comfort. It also happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when millions of jigsaw puzzles were sold to a populace desperate for distraction.
So, in a way, working on a puzzle connects us with our grandparents and great grandparents, and that’s reassuring. They made it through hard times and we will, too.
Jigsaw puzzle history
Jigsaw puzzles were first invented in the mid-1760s by a London cartographer named John Spilsbury (1739-1769).
Spilsbury, who was also an engraver and print-maker, got the idea for turning a map into a learning game.
He got a sheet of wood and mounted a map on it. Then he cut the countries out by hand. These countries became pieces that could be fitted back into the map to complete the picture.
Spilsbury called his creation a “dissected map” and marketed it as an educational toy for children. He had maps of seven other areas in addition to Europe, including Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, America, Africa, Asia, and one for the whole world.
After Spilsbury’s death in 1769, his wife and her new husband continued selling dissected maps. These were very popular; even the children of King George III were taught geography with the aid of one.
Hand-cut jigsaw puzzles were mainly used as educational aids in the early 19th century. But as the century went on, pictures as well as maps were used as illustrations. Machines, like the reciprocating saw patented in the 1850s, made the puzzles easier to manufacture. All these innovations helped jigsaw puzzles transition from an instructional tool or children to a recreational pastime for adults.
In America the Parker Brothers put their first puzzles on the market in 1887. By 1909 the puzzle craze was so strong that for a time the brothers devoted their whole operation to manufacturing jigsaw puzzles.
A popular type of jigsaw puzzle around the turn of the 20th century was the postcard puzzle. The puzzle pieces were postcards – you’d have to collect all of them in a series to construct the puzzle.
Here’s a 1906 postcard puzzle depicting Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), a French actress as famous for her many lovers as she was for her acting ability.
Bernhardt began her long career on the stage at the Comédie-Française and ended it working in the motion picture industry.
This 10-postcard set shows her in costume in some of her most famous roles.
And here is another example of a postcard puzzle, a colorful novelty courtesy of the Cornell University Library.
This series of four postcards from 1907 depicts a “teddy bear,” a reference to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who was a U.S. president from 1901-1909.
Toy teddy bears were created in honor of Roosevelt after he refused to kill a captured bear during a hunting trip in 1902.
A puzzle that predicts the future
Some puzzles provide more than entertainment. I found a 1910 French puzzle predicting that the future of home heating would be tied to radium.
Radium was an exciting new discovery at that time. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered the element in 1898, an achievement that earned the scientists the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman ever awarded a Nobel Prize.
For a while radium was considered nothing short of a miracle. It was used in lots of products, including clocks, toys, toothpaste, cosmetics, other household items, and even impotence treatments. So it’s no surprise that in 1903 radium was touted as a promising new source of home heating in a Popular Science Monthly article.
But what neither the author of the article nor the fictional group of friends in the postcard puzzle could have known was that Marie Curie would later die of radiation poisoning, a direct result of her pioneering work. Other people developed radiation sickness and also died from exposure to the element before its use was curtailed.
So, the fact that radium as a heating source could be deadly was one flaw in the idyllic future depicted on the postcard. But what I find even more curious in this vision of the year 2000 is that women’s clothing and hairstyles were forecast to stay just as they were 90 years earlier in 1910.
I imagine that if the people basking in the glow of the radium-heated hearth could have glimpsed 21st-century fashion trends like yoga pants, spray tans and flat-ironed hair, their reaction would have been an astonished “sacré bleu!”
Jigsaw puzzles then and now
Picture puzzles were all the rage in the United States during the early 19th century, even out west in Oregon where I live. An adult daughter of the wealthy Pittock clan kept several jigsaw puzzles going at same time in rooms throughout the family’s 1914 French Renaissance-style mansion in Portland’s West Hills.
A hundred years ago puzzles were a plaything for the rich. In 1908 a 500-piece puzzle could cost as much as $5, which was a lot of money back when the average worker was lucky to make $50 per month.
During the Depression, people got around the high cost of puzzles by making their own. Unemployed woodworkers or other craftsmen had the skills to make wooden puzzles at home and then sell or rent them to their neighbors. Businesses capitalized on the public’s thirst for jigsaw puzzles by giving away cheap cardboard versions that were advertisements for their products. Libraries and drugstores helped make puzzles even more accessible during those tough years by renting them for a few cents a day.
Cardboard puzzles had been around since the late 1800s, but were seen as low quality compared to wooden puzzles. But after World War II, technological improvements in die-cutting and lithography helped make cardboard puzzles prettier, easier to put together and cheaper to purchase. High quality reproductions of beautiful landscapes and classic paintings also made the cardboard puzzles more attractive to buyers.
Today you can easily find online jigsaw puzzles. But to me, these virtual puzzles leave something to be desired.
Jigsaw puzzles, with pieces you can spill on table and turn this way and that, are a year-round entertainment and a Christmas tradition in many families, including mine. But from now on when I see a jigsaw puzzle I’ll think of the half dozen (and counting) puzzles my husband and I pieced together during our quarantine to restore a little sanity to a crazy time.
“Demand for jigsaw puzzles is surging as coronavirus keeps millions of Americans indoors,” by Hannah Miller, CNBC.com, April 5, 2020.
“History of Jigsaw,” by Anne D. Williams, (article based on her book The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History, Berkley Hardcover, November 2004), Puzzle Warehouse.
“With People Stuck At Home, Jigsaw Puzzle Sales Soar,” NPR, April 13, 2020
“A New Source of Heat: Radium,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 63, May 1903, by Henry Carrington Bolton.
“9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood the Risks, “ by Adrienne Crezo, Mental Floss, October 9, 2012.
Images provided by Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons.