What Is a Jigsaw Puzzle? (History & Facts)


Jigsaw puzzles — we loved them as kids, we grew up with them, and some of us still consider them a big part of our free-time routines. But jigsaw puzzles weren’t always meant to be a fun, playtime activity. In fact, the first jigsaw puzzles were used as a teaching tool. But before we delve into its history, let’s brush up on the basics – what is a jigsaw puzzle, anyway?


What Is a Jigsaw Puzzle?

A jigsaw puzzle is a tabletop puzzle composed of irregularly shaped tiles that, when placed correctly, form an image. Today, most puzzles are made of cardboard, but they were originally wooden. Back then, puzzle makers had to use a saw to cut the picture into tiles, which is how the name jigsaw puzzle came to be.


The History of Jigsaw Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles have been around for well over two centuries, making generations of people happy. But where did it all start?

The First Jigsaw Puzzle

The first ever jigsaw puzzle is believed to have been constructed by British cartographer and engraver John Spilsbury around 1760. This wooden puzzle, along with many more to follow, was designed to teach geography (usually, the pieces would match the countries on the map). In fact, it is believed that the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte were taught geography using these puzzles.


The Evolution of Jigsaw Puzzles

Once invented, jigsaw puzzles took the world by storm. Their use expanded beyond geography to other areas of study, and then beyond education entirely. Throughout the 19th century, puzzles gained popularity among children and adults alike. As printing and materials became more sophisticated, this popularity skyrocketed. At this point in time, puzzles started being printed on plywood instead of solid wood, making for a cheaper, yet better material for a jigsaw puzzle.

Additionally, in the 1880s, the first treadle jigsaw was invented. Up until that point, jigsaw puzzles were known as “dissected puzzles”, but this new invention changed that forever. In addition to the name, the treadle jigsaw also changed the puzzles themselves. Now, it was possible to create even more intricate details when cutting the tiles.

So in short, better printing technology, the use of plywood, and the invention of the jigsaw played a crucial role in the rising popularity of jigsaw puzzles in the 19th century. They also allowed puzzle makers to be more adventurous with their designs, often inventing new ways to make the puzzle more difficult. For instance, they would apply straight cuts in the middle of the puzzle or cut along the shapes in the picture, making it harder to figure out which pieces go together.

However, at the turn of the century, the popularity of jigsaw puzzles hadn’t reached its peak yet. As two world wars and the Great Depression brought devastation to people around the globe, leaving many both miserable and destitute, jigsaw puzzles became a quick, easy, and cheap escape from reality.

Additionally, in the early 20th century, companies began using jigsaw puzzles for promotional purposes. For instance, Great Western Railway, a British railway operator, launched a puzzle in the 1920s depicting their steam engines in collaboration with the toy company Chad Valley. Similarly, Cunard, a shipping and cruise company, came up with postcard-sized puzzles to sell as souvenirs.

At this time, jigsaw puzzles became fully commercialized, with companies beginning to mass produce them and pack them in boxes with the picture of the solved puzzle on them. Interestingly, this was somewhat of a controversial move, as up until then, looking at a reference picture while solving a jigsaw puzzle was considered cheating. Additionally, companies started to produce puzzles on cardboard, as the Second World War rendered even cheaper materials, such as plywood difficult to come by.

Since then, jigsaw puzzles have been a staple in almost every household. Many of us remember them fondly, and some of us still like to solve them from time to time. And then, their popularity soared again. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially throughout the 2020 lockdowns, puzzles once again became our go-to pastime activity.

The jigsaw puzzles of today come in an array of different sizes, shapes, and types, with various motifs tailored to all ages. They are a truly universally loved phenomenon, and if you ask us, we hope it stays that way.

How Are Modern Jigsaw Puzzles Made?

Today, most jigsaw puzzles are made of paperboard. This makes them more affordable, both for the producers and the consumers, and generally easier to mass produce. First, an image (photograph, painting, or any other image) is printed on a flat piece of paperboard. This paperboard is then put into a press which uses a puzzle die (a sort of mould used for cutting puzzle pieces) to cut the pieces of the puzzle.

Alternatively, puzzles can be cut into pieces using laser-cutting technology. This technology has also unlocked the doors to new possibilities in terms of the shapes and sizes of both tiles and the puzzles themselves.

And while we love a good, old, classic flat puzzle, it would be unfair not to mention the many iterations and variations that have emerged. For instance, there are three-dimensional puzzles (either made of layers of 2D puzzles or uniquely shaped pieces), sphere-shaped puzzle globes, and so on.

Types of Jigsaw Puzzles

While there are so many variations of puzzles out there, when it comes to traditional jigsaw puzzles, we tend to categorize them by size:

- Small – Smaller jigsaw puzzles are usually meant for toddlers and kids. They can have anywhere between four and a couple of hundred pieces.

- Medium – Medium jigsaw puzzles are, for instance, 300-piece puzzles or 500-piece puzzles. They tend to be a little more difficult than smaller puzzles.

- Large – Large puzzles are usually 1000 pieces and up. There really is no upper limit to how large a puzzle can be. The largest puzzle ever made consists of 60,000 pieces!

Conclusion

We hope this stroll down memory lane rekindled your love for jigsaw puzzles. Whether you want to try your hand at one now or share this love with someone else, don’t forget that Mary Maxim carries a large collection of jigsaw puzzles for all ages.

Jigsaw Puzzle FAQs

What’s the Difference Between a Puzzle and a Jigsaw Puzzle?
A jigsaw puzzle is an image composed of small cut-up pieces that need to be placed correctly. A puzzle, on the other hand, is a wider term that encompasses all kinds of games (including jigsaw puzzles), such as crosswords, riddles, brain teasers, and more. In short, jigsaw puzzles are a type of puzzle.


What Is the Purpose of a Jigsaw Puzzle?

The original purpose of a jigsaw puzzle was to teach geography and other areas of study. This is why the original puzzles were geographical maps. Over time, however, the purpose of jigsaw puzzles, both for kids and adults, became to have fun, pass the time, or sharpen one’s mental skills.

What Qualifies as a Jigsaw Puzzle?

A jigsaw puzzle refers to any puzzle where the player is supposed to put the pieces in the correct place (and sometimes even in the correct order) in order to create a larger image. While most jigsaw puzzles are flat, there are also 3D and irregularly shaped variations.