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America, The Beautiful Jigsaw Puzzle

May 2024
4min read

Like any other popular art, jigsaw puzzles can tell us a lot about pieces of the past

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.

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.

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