America, The Beautiful Jigsaw Puzzle

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By 1933 Ware and Henriques were conducting business from a penthouse apartment in midtown Manhattan and catering to a glamorous clientele that in time came to include the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (The Duke wanted puzzles with pieces cut into the silhouettes of his four Cairn terriers. The Duchess, the former Wallis Warfield, preferred them cut in the shape of her handwritten W.W. ) In addition to the titled couple, the Ware and Henriques client list eventually included Vanderbilts, du Ponts, Clare Boothe Luce, and Marilyn Monroe. Prices ranged from seventy-five to two thousand dollars. The business was known as Par Puzzles; you were not up to par if it took you longer to complete a puzzle than the time that was specified on the box. (The limit was established by how long it took Mr. Henriques to complete it.)

Throughout the worst depression in our history, five hundred puzzle companies were able to keep their doors open. Some used milkmen to deliver their product.

Sales of mass-produced puzzles declined when the Depression ended, and after World War II puzzles had to compete with such powerful diversions as television. Henriques closed the business in 1974. By this time jigsaw puzzles had attracted a growing circle of collectors. The first major exhibition of them in the United States was held at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in the summer of 1988. It included 118 examples, drawn from a collection of nearly 2,000.

“I’m basically a two-dimensional person,” says Anne Williams, owner of the puzzles and a professor of economics at Bates. Her love of puzzles grew out of a childhood fondness. Although most vintage puzzles can still be obtained at moderate prices, many examples fall into the three-figure range. Williams’s advice for anyone interested in purchasing old puzzles is that they are worth full value only when completely assembled; a few missing pieces will greatly diminish their desirability. You should not be required to pay full price for one still sitting in its box. Since many dealers are unwilling to put the puzzles together simply for the sake of making a sale, this can present a problem. Williams is not beyond putting a puzzle together right on a dealer’s table at an antique show.

The exhibition at Bates paid special attention to American puzzles, and visitors were given an opportunity to help assemble a large puzzle. Glancing around the room, one could see images of the nation’s history emerging from what had begun as child’s play—a massive, colorful mosaic of America’s past as well as its dreams.

Old puzzles are worth full value only when complete; one collector insists on assembling them right at the antiques dealer’s table during a show.