A Puzzling History of Jigsaw Puzzles

Tina Lernø, Librarian, Digital Content Team,
4 vintage jigsaw puzzles
John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver, is believed to have produced the first "jigsaw" puzzle around 1760

I have been an avid puzzler all my life, but because of Covid, I have rekindled my love of doing puzzles. 1000 pieces are my jam, and I can usually finish one in the course of 2 to 3 evenings or a marathon weekend. You can find me on any given evening listening to an audiobook (downloaded from Overdrive or hoopla) and saying just one more piece...ooh one more...okay, last one...and then it's 3 a.m., and I'm yelling jigsaw! Seemingly lots of people did the same, as puzzle sales have reached levels that haven't been seen since the Great Depression. As one company owner put it, "The puzzle people are still puzzle people, only now they have more time to do puzzles. And people who had not done puzzles since they were kids...were digging puzzles out of their grandma's attic to have something to do and were liking it."

This got me thinking about the history of jigsaw puzzles; when were they invented, what is a jigsaw, and any other nerdy things I could research. Here are some fun facts I discovered.

John Spilsbury, a London cartographer, and engraver is believed to have produced the first "jigsaw" puzzle around 1760. It was a map glued to a flat piece of wood and then cut into pieces following the lines of the countries. These early puzzles were known as "dissections," and they were beneficial for teaching geography. But they were not just for children; they were a trendy pastime among the (wealthy) adults as well. Made of wood and handcrafted, only the very wealthy could afford them.

And did old John use a jigsaw to cut apart his "dissection"? No, he did not because the jigsaw had yet to be invented! He likely used a marquetry saw, which is still a popular hand saw utilizing a blade held between its curved frame.

The jigsaw was invented in 1855. It was a vertical reciprocating saw with a treadle to operate the blade. It was also known as a fretsaw or scrollsaw. Jigsaw came from the nickname jig, which was used because of the saw's "rapid up-and-down motion." Picture an old-fashioned sewing machine with a blade instead of a needle. The name "jigsaw puzzle" didn't appear until 1906, and the modern portable jigsaw wasn't introduced until 1947.

Because of its close association with a sewing machine, those early saws were mostly operated by women, and "bonus," they could pay women less for their work.

Many puzzle companies claim to have the biggest (or largest) jigsaw puzzle: Grafika boasts that "Travel around Art" with 54,000 pieces is the biggest. Still, Ravensburger contends that with over 40,000 pieces, “Memorable Disney Moments” is confirmed by Guinness World Records as the largest commercially made puzzle globally, both in the number of pieces and overall size. Kodak staked its claim for the world's largest jigsaw puzzle with the aptly named "World's Largest Jigsaw Puzzle." It has 51,300-pieces and is 28.5 feet by 6.25 feet. There's also a Guinness World Records giant, which claims to have the most pieces, 551,232, and was completed with an overall measurement of 48 ft 8.64 in x 76 ft 1.38 in by 1,600 students of the University of Economics of Ho Chi Minh City in September of 2011. The puzzle depicted a lotus flower with six petals. (I will stick with my 1000 pieces).

Fun fact: 1000 piece puzzles don't contain exactly 1000 pieces; most are 1008 or 1026 to make the correct shape.

During the Great Depression of 1933, manufacturers produced 10 million puzzles a week, and people could rent puzzles for a nickel a night. This was before modern jigsaws and the current die-cut method. Today's Covid era sales have beaten those records with brands like Ravensburger, one of the top puzzle companies, selling over 28 million puzzles worldwide in 2020 alone. That translates to sales in the billions of dollars for puzzle companies worldwide. That is a lot of puzzles!

The die-cut machine is like a giant metal cookie cutter that cuts out the pieces using about 1,100 tons of pressure. The blades get dull very quickly and can be sharpened once or maybe twice, but then are discarded. I hope they recycle those.

Each shape has a name, but there really isn't a standard naming convention. There are basically tabs or interjambs, and their corresponding indentations are called blanks, so you could say 4 tabs, or 2 tabs, and 2 opposing blanks. I have made up my own names, (that I whisper to myself) as I hunt around, such as door knobby thingy, or half-inny-half-outy, and two-uppy-one inny.

January 29 is National Puzzle Day, and National Jigsaw Day is November 3.

Shameless plug: Our very own Library Store sells a wide range of puzzles; come by Central Library or shop through their website.

Books About Jigsaw Puzzles

Book cover for Puzzled: A History of Jigsaw Puzzles and Expert Tips to Get Them Solved
Puzzled: A History of Jigsaw Puzzles and Expert Tips to Get Them Solved
Seed, Dan

Book cover for Animal Puzzles for the Scroll Saw
Animal Puzzles for the Scroll Saw
Peterson, Judy

Book cover for Master Pieces: The Art History of Jigsaw Puzzles
Master Pieces: The Art History of Jigsaw Puzzles
McCann, Chris

Book cover for The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws
Drabble, Margaret

Book cover for Making Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles
Making Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles
Kern, Evan J.