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America, The Beautiful Jigsaw Puzzle
Like any other popular art, jigsaw puzzles can tell us a lot about pieces of the past
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
You step into a dream. It is not your dream but somebody else’s. The fragments of this dream are scattered about. You must put them back together again.
This is difficult. Every piece is significant. Minute details become magnified: a piece of white dress, a clenched fist, a gold knob on a mahogany drawer, half of a crooked smile. You hold the sun as you search for the sky. You see a pair of laughing eyes and no face anywhere. Still you keep trying.
Americans have been inching their way to the completion of such dreams for generations, and most people can remember the feeling of satisfaction that finishing a difficult jigsaw puzzle brings. From the beginning, jigsaw puzzles have offered such feelings of accomplishment to children. Indeed, psychologists now endorse their benefits: teaching spatial relationships, helping develop powers of concentration, and, of course, nourishing problemsolving skills.
It is not clear how many of these positive attributes may have been apparent in 1850, when the first known jigsaw puzzle to be manufactured in the United States was sold, but that inaugural puzzle was indeed intended for educational purposes. It was a map of the state of New York, and any parental worries about idleness were assuaged by the back of the box, where the president of Union College in Schenectady provided a testimonial.
Before this, most picture puzzles were imported k to America from England. John Spilsbury, a London mapmaker, is credited with inventing them in the 176Os, when he began mounting maps on wood and then “dissecting” them. The innovation spread quickly. Other map-makers and children’s book publishers soon joined the market, some expanding the concept to include the teaching of history and Scriptures.
The association of the puzzles with geography played an essential role in their introduction to the rapidly expanding America of the 185Os. In 1854 S. Augustus Mitchell of Philadelphia created a hand-colored “Dissected Map of the United States,” which contained fifty-four wood pieces and featured the locations of major Indian tribes and a special enlargement of the gold region of California. Other puzzles documented the nation’s industrial growth, pointing up the regions that were becoming known for particular industries. All this expansion they were reporting was a great boon to the puzzle companies, of course; each map puzzle quickly became obsolete and had to be replaced with an up-to-date version. Before long, however, the Industrial Revolution influenced the puzzle business more directly. In 1876 the power scroll saw, which became known as the jigsaw, was introduced to the general public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Now people found they could make their own puzzles at home and market them through lending libraries.
By the 1890s major puzzle concerns had abandoned the jigsaw for the new die press, which could stamp out puzzles quickly and inexpensively. At the same time, advances in chromolithography made possible bright and elaborate pictures of the America the puzzles celebrated: gleaming express locomotives and fire engines, ocean liners, and city-scapes.
The Industrial Revolution’s greatest impact had to do with leisure. People had more time on their hands, and puzzles became the rage. And not just for children. High society embraced them, and specialized lending libraries proliferated, offering the borrower a week’s worth of puzzle solving for twenty-five cents a puzzle. Children had been content to put the same puzzle together again and again; adults were not, and this created so argent a demand for new puzzles that Parker Brothers stopped making toys and games for a solid year in order to devote all its time and money to puzzles. The company went all out, cutting pieces into the shapes of stars and snowflakes and lobsters. By 1910, when Parker Brothers’ efforts had made it the premier puzzle manufacturer in America, there were two hundred women working at cutting puzzles in its Salem, Massachusetts, factory.
Puzzles enjoyed a resurgence in the 1930s; in 1933 between 2 and 2.5 million puzzles were sold each week, some of them delivered by milkmen. Through the worst depression in our history, five hundred puzzle companies were able to keep going.
Nowhere was this entrepreneurial energy more apparent than in the efforts of Frank Ware and John Henriques. Rather than employ a die press, they decided to create beautiful hand-cut puzzles. Assuming that most people put a puzzle together only once, they planned to distribute their product through lending libraries. Instead, from the start most of their clients wanted to buy and keep the splendid custom-made puzzles.