Puzzling through the Coronavirus Crisis

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Spilsbury’s 1766 “dissected map” of Europe

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.

Postcard 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.

Pierre and Marie in 1903

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.

1910 postcard puzzle of radium heating in the year 2000

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!”

Original 1910 French illustration used to make postcard puzzle- note the words “en l’an 2000” (“in the year 2000”) written in the top left corner.

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.

Close-up view of a hand-cut, wooden jigsaw puzzle. (Photo by Charles Hamm, CC BY 3.0)

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.

The First Vaccine – Part 2

Depiction of Edward Jenner administering the first smallpox vaccination

Edward Jenner and Cowpox

The solution to safer smallpox inoculations came from English physician Edward Jenner. And surprisingly, he got help from a cow.

Edward Jenner was born into a big family (he was one of nine children) in 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Because his father was a clergyman, young Edward and his siblings got a good basic education. But getting variolated as a teenager had an even greater impact on his life.

Jenner was grateful that he avoided smallpox by getting variolated at a young age. But he was also aware of the risks of the procedure. As he grew older he studied both zoology and human biology. That’s how he learned of a possible link between an animal disease and the dreaded smallpox that could be the key to safer inoculations.

The disease was cowpox. And it’s no wonder it attracted attention. Cowpox was a much milder disease than smallpox, and it didn’t cause as much scarring and death in the humans who contracted it. In fact, cowpox fatalities were less than one percent.

By the time Jenner began his career in the 1770s, there was growing evidence through observations by other doctors and even farmers that getting cowpox could be a way to avoid getting smallpox.  

But these observations lacked solid proof. So when Jenner noted that dairymaids who worked with infected cows rarely got smallpox, he began to study the phenomenon in a disciplined and scientific way. He hypothesized that not only did contracting cowpox result in immunity to smallpox, but also that a method could be developed to transmit this immunity. 

To test his hypothesis, he found a cowpox-stricken dairymaid and used her infected blisters to vaccinate 8-year-old James Phipps. Phipps fell briefly ill but recovered. And when Jenner then exposed Phipps to smallpox and the boy didn’t contract the disease, Jenner concluded his experiment worked. 

The Inquiry

Jenner tested his vaccine on many people, including his own son, before publishing his findings. When he did self-publish his Inquiry in 1798 (its full title is An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the name of the Cow Pox) it was an immediate hit and he quickly became famous. Other scientists validated his observations, and by 1799 more than a thousand people had been vaccinated.

Such was his fame that even Jane Austen knew about Jenner. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she describes a dinner party where guests took turns reading from “Dr. Jenner’s pamphlet.”

Napoleon was another fan. Despite waging war against the British, Napoleon had Jenner vaccinate his troops and awarded him a medal, calling him one of the “greatest benefactors of mankind.” 

And in 1821 Jenner was named “physician extraordinary” to the newly crowned King George IV, the monarch better known as the Prince Regent or Prinny.

Jenner’s Dream

Jenner’s dream, which he expressed in 1801, was that his vaccine would one day eliminate smallpox entirely. And despite problems that still had to be resolved regarding stability and distribution, the vaccine was soon on its way around the world.

In 1803, Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis took Jenner’s vaccine on a 3-year expedition, traveling throughout the Americas and Asia, where he vaccinated thousands of people, saving countless lives.

Meanwhile, variolation fell out of favor during the early 19th century. The practice was finally banned in England in 1840 and the government instead provided free vaccinations with Jenner’s cowpox vaccine.


Just as there are anti-vaxxers today, there were those in Jenner’s time who strongly opposed vaccination. Some people thought the vaccine would make cow-like parts erupt all over their bodies. And there were religious leaders who objected to the new vaccine on the grounds that by preventing the disease the vaccine went against God’s will.

1802 caricature by James Gillray illustrating people’s fears concerning Jenner’s cowpox vaccine

But while scientists labored and people argued the disease continued to rage. There were at least two more smallpox pandemics in Europe before 1840. And the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was the cause of yet another pandemic that killed half a million people.

Success at Last

Jenner’s development of a vaccine in the 1790s was only the beginning, not the end of the story of the fight against smallpox. It took the work of many other scientists to test and create a smallpox vaccine that was uncontaminated, stable and could be safely transported to countries around the world.

In 1853 Parliament made smallpox vaccinations mandatory for infants in Great Britain. By the 1860s two-thirds of all British babies had been vaccinated and there was a resulting drop in the number of infant deaths caused by the disease.  

However, vaccination remained controversial and anti-vaccination leagues formed in Britain and the United States. Fortunately, vaccinations continued and the disease’s grip on mankind weakened.

Following a series of global vaccination campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, success came at last.

In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated. Smallpox is still the only human disease that’s been exterminated by vaccination.

It took 180 years, but Jenner’s dream of wiping smallpox off the face of the earth finally came true.

Jenner’s Legacy

Edward Jenner died in 1823. A humble man, he was considered a hero in his lifetime and still is today. While he may not have been the first to realize that cowpox could lead to immunity against smallpox, his work made smallpox inoculations popular and laid the groundwork for the widespread vaccinations that eventually defeated the disease.

In addition, his scientific inquiries became the basis of the modern science of immunology. 

Jenner’s work put him ahead of his time – so much so that it was almost another century before French chemist Louis Pasteur developed the next vaccines, for rabies and anthrax, in the 1880s.

Vaccines today

But why is that we call all inoculations “vaccines”? Jenner’s name for his discovery came from the Latin word for cow, “vacca.” So, technically, it should apply only to his cowpox vaccine. 

But Pasteur wanted to pay homage to Jenner’s creation of the first vaccine by naming all inoculations, including the ones he developed, “vaccinations” even though cows had nothing to do with them.

Pasteur’s tribute to Jenner caught on and that’s why now we have “vaccines” for influenza, tetanus, shingles, pneumonia and many other potentially deadly diseases.

Hopefully soon there’ll be a vaccine for coronavirus, too. When that day comes, it will be yet another outcome of Jenner’s pioneering work over 200 years ago.

Additional information

For more information on this topic see this article, “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination,” available from the National Institutes of Health.

Also, read this article on smallpox vaccines by the World Health Organization. (It’s a relief to know that despite the disappearance of smallpox there are still stockpiles of vaccine in existence.)

The First Vaccine – Part 1

As I write this, much of the world is still in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. As people across the globe struggle to protect themselves with face masks, social distancing and self-isolation, scientists are scrambling to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

But this isn’t the first race to develop a vaccine. In the 18th century, Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, to combat smallpox. It’s a story that’s still inspiring and relevant today.

The Scourge of Smallpox

You can’t overestimate the horror of smallpox. For centuries it was rightly feared for the way it killed, disabled and disfigured people on a massive scale.

Smallpox killed at least 20 percent of its victims. It was especially brutal to children. According to data collected in Glasgow, a city famed for its careful record-keeping, from about 1783 to 1800 approximately half all children born died before they reached the age of 10, and smallpox was responsible for 40 percent of those deaths.

Other statistics show that during the same time period the mortality rate among infants who contracted smallpox was nearly 80 percent in London and 98 percent in Berlin.

Imagine those figures – absolutely heart-breaking!

The disease did other damage, too. Survivors were usually left with disfiguring scars, especially on their faces. Plus, before the vaccination era, smallpox was the chief cause of blindness throughout Europe.

The First Inoculations

But by the 18th century it was widely believed that if you could survive smallpox you’d be immune to it. In fact, we know that as early as 436 B.C. (which shows you how long smallpox plagued mankind) smallpox survivors were the ones who took care of the sick.

Armed with this knowledge, people developed a way to combat smallpox by deliberately exposing themselves to it. They developed a process called variolation, from the Latin word variola that was used at the time for smallpox.

Variolation was done by piercing the skin of an arm or leg, usually with a sharp lancet dripping with fluid from an active smallpox blister. Another method involved rubbing a piece of fluid-soaked cloth over a scratch on the skin.

This practice was used widely in Asia and the Middle East, and while it sounded barbaric to Western ears it often worked – the rate and the severity of smallpox infections dropped significantly when variolation was performed.

Variolation Goes West

Variolation came to England in the early 18th century. It happened soon after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, saw the procedure performed in Istanbul.

If anyone had a reason to hate smallpox, it was Lady Mary. Not only had her brother died from it, but a bout with smallpox in 1715 left her, once a celebrated beauty, with a badly scarred face.

Lady Mary and her son

While living In Turkey, Lady Mary had her 5-year-old son variolated by embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. But when she got back home, she discovered English doctors opposed this foreign practice.

That didn’t stop her. When a smallpox epidemic loomed in 1721, she insisted her 4-year-old daughter be variolated. Once again Dr. Maitland performed the procedure, but this time Lady Mary made sure royal physicians saw him do it. When Maitland also successfully variolated two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722, variolation became acceptable in English society. 

But variolation had its downsides. The biggest drawback was the risk of the procedure going spectacularly wrong. If that happened, variolation could give someone smallpox or make them a carrier of the disease.

The concept of inoculating someone against smallpox by introducing a small amount of it into their bodies seemed to work. But how could this procedure not only be safer, but easier to administer to lots of people?

The answer to that question is in my next post, The First Vaccine, Part 2.

Welcome – let the journey begin!

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

Hello – I’m Maureen Mackey, the “hound” in The History Hound.  I’m a writer with a passion for history. For the last couple of years I’ve blogged about the Regency Era in The Regency Looking Glass, but in this blog I’ll expand my focus to include other historical periods.

Trends in fashion, food, and popular culture – these are the threads in the tapestry of everyday life that fascinate me. I’ll cover these in detail. What I won’t linger on are wars, weaponry and other military matters, even though these topics are a huge part of history, too.  

Let other pens dwell on those topics; I prefer to focus on the less dramatic events and innovations that may not have made a huge splash at their debut but eventually proved to have a significant impact on our lives today.

What would we do without the zipper?

For example, take the humble and ubiquitous zipper – you’re probably wearing one now. It was invented in 1893 but didn’t take off until the U.S. Army ordered masses of them for uniforms and equipment during World War I.

Created by a Chicago machine salesman and mechanical engineer who gloried in the name of Whitcomb Judson, the zipper was designed not to replace buttons but as an alternative to shoelaces in closing up the sides of a high boot.

One of the first bicycles

And then there’s the bicycle. The first steerable, two-wheeled bicycle was invented in Germany by Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. His bulky wooden contraption had no pedals or brakes. It went by many names, including draisine, running machine, dandy-horse, hobby-horse, and, later in the century, boneshaker – no doubt because of its rough ride.

Bicycles were first a novelty and then a fad throughout the 19th century, but now, two centuries later, they’ve evolved into an elegant and efficient mode of transportation popular throughout the world.

If stories like these interest you, I invite you to follow me. I’d love to connect with other history buffs and people who appreciate a good story that just happens to be true!