Piece together the history of puzzles

Last year, correspondent Mo Rocca bought a thousand-piece puzzle of a Diego Rivera mural from 1933. He didn’t expect to get there until he was 80.

Well, things have changed.

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Mo Rocca working on his Diego Rivera masterpiece.

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He is not the only one. Across the country, people are pulling out their puzzles to pass the time.

The very first puzzle is said to have been made by London cartographer John Spilsbury in the 1760s. “He glued a map to a thin piece of wood, and he used a coping saw to cut it out; England would be a piece, Germany would be another piece,” said Anne Williams, puzzle historian and author of “The Jigsaw Puzzle: Pieces of History.”

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John Spilsbury’s European Map Puzzle.

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“He marketed them to very wealthy and influential people as a tool to teach geography to their children.”

“Anne, I have to say a puzzle is a great way to learn geography,” Rocca said.

“Absolutely,” she replied. “I think almost everyone spent time in their childhood putting together a map of the United States.”

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A Playskool puzzle map of the United States.

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Soon puzzles extended their reach beyond learning, with puzzles depicting nursery rhymes and fairy tale subjects, ships and trains.

In the early 20th century, the games company Parker Brothers came up with the idea of ​​interlocking pieces – each cut by hand – mostly, Williams says, by women. “Parker Brothers claimed they hired women because they already knew how to sew,” Williams said. “A treadle sewing machine looked a lot like a treadle scroll saw. So they were easy to train. They didn’t mention they could pay the women a lot less!”

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A boat puzzle.

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It was during the Great Depression that the popularity of puzzles exploded. According to Williams, “30 million homes in the United States were absorbing 10 million puzzles every week.”

Puzzles were fun – and a job. “There were so many people out of work,” Williams said, “you could buy a scroll saw, a jigsaw, for $20. So they put the saw in their kitchen or their basement, started making puzzles and selling them to their neighbors or renting them out through the local pharmacy.”

Rose and Mark Stevens of Piece Time Puzzles in Northwood, New Hampshire have been making and selling puzzles for 25 years. In their time, they cut thousands of puzzles.

Regarding the popularity of puzzle categories, Rose said, “We go through spells. Sometimes it’s butterflies.”

“The frogs had been around for several years; I couldn’t get enough frog puzzles,” Mark said. “Headlights were – people collect headlights, you know? It was a big thing for a few years.” Recent fads, they said, include dogs and birds.

But the bulk of their business comes from custom puzzles. Mark explained: “You upload your photo of your dog to the website. Rose gets it, blows it up and prints it on the large format printers. Then I mount it on cardboard and cut it out, I ‘pack it, then I ship it.”

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Create a puzzle at Piece Time Puzzles.

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They were privy to moments that were both poignant…and puzzling. Mark said: “We had a wedding photo, and they wanted one person out of the photo. I thought it was cute. I didn’t ask for the story. I wanted to make up my own story about the one. -the !”

“And you did it?” Roca asked.

“Yeah,” Rose laughed. “He can be quite creative.”

Piece Time Puzzles is already seeing a surge in business in the current climate.

Rocca said, “I’m not cute here, [but] it sounds like you’re kind of in an essential business.”

“It is for us !” Mark laughed.

And for the puzzle fans: “Yeah, we have that all the time,” Rose said. “They come in and they look all distraught: ‘What is it?’ ‘I’m almost out of puzzles!'”

As for Mo, he will work on his Diego Rivera mural for a long time to come.


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Story produced by Young Kim and Mary Lou Teel. Publisher: James Taylor.