Puzzling over puzzles

It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.

There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.  

Deepak Chopra

I love puzzles.  Crosswords, logic puzzles, find a words and Sudoku. At the moment I am in the midst of an intense affair with jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have long been a favourite holiday pastime. When we’ve gone away to the beach, the mountains or even stayed at home over the Christmas New Year period there has always been a large puzzle set up on a table for all to enjoy.

A few months ago I found a box of ten puzzles in a secondhand store. They were different sizes; 250, 300, 500, 750 and 1000 pieces. I took to completing the smaller puzzles over a weekend, often completing one in a few hours. The impulse became so strong I set up the 1000 piece puzzle and worked on it in the spare moments over a fortnight. The bug had bitten. I dug out previously purchased and untried puzzles. Once completed, I scoured the secondhand stores for more. My craving became so strong I realized I couldn’t budget for the demand so I began swapping puzzles with other avid solvers and it got me thinking about where jigsaw puzzles began.

I imagine John Spilsbury, a mapmaker in the mid 1700’s, was so enamored with the wonder the world offered and so insightful, to realise young children needed to develop the capacity to place themselves in the world, that he created a very clever educational tool. He pasted a map of the word onto thin wood and cut it into pieces to teach children about geography. Voila, the first jigsaw puzzle.

Very soon these early ‘dissected maps’ evolved as other entrepreneurs realized the scope of jigsaw puzzles and added historical scenes to be reassembled for educational purposes. Wooden puzzles are still a popular toy gifted to young children today to teach about shape, improve dexterity and aid in building vocabulary. My son had several as an infant and he too is a keen puzzler.

The humble jigsaw puzzle has evolved from an educational tool for children into a source of enjoyment for both adults and children. The early puzzles for adults were truly tricky though. There were no interlocking pieces as today, simply pieces cut along colour lines with no picture on the box to guide construction.

A decade ago there was a huge craze for Murder Mystery dinner parties. Well, I was delighted to discover this set-up began in the 1900’s with weekend puzzle parties held by wealthy puzzlers at their country homes.

During the Great Depression puzzles for adults were a great source of distraction and accomplishment with sales reaching an astounding 10 million a week in 1933. Clever unemployed craftsmen cut jigsaws at home and sold or rented them in local neighborhoods.

Soon after the cheaper, less expensive cardboard puzzles began to be mass-produced making puzzles more widely available. But the fun didn’t stop there. A quirky concept, I would love to participate in, saw the emergence of a weekly jigsaw puzzle. The 25-cent puzzle of the week was sold on news stands and, naturally, people rushed to buy them.

Manufacturing techniques were perfected in the 1950’s and standard puzzles haven’t changed much since except perhaps in picture quality. A jigsaw puzzle of a 1000 or more pieces with an engaging scene is my preference. Though I have recently completed a beautiful 3D puzzle of Neuschwanstein Castle (an absolute delight as I remembered walking its perimeter several years ago) and a couple of holographic puzzles (very hard on the eyes but good fun) as well as some Impossibles were a single image is repeated with little distinction. I recently discovered a new form of What if puzzle, where what you see on the box is not the puzzle you solve. I am keen to try one.

My curiosity about the history of the humble jigsaw has now been sated but not my appetite for puzzles themselves.

Anyone care to swap?