The story of how puzzles became a popular pastime

Photo: Solovyov Vadym Photos/Shutterstock

Making a puzzle is a perfect way to relieve stress, keep your hands busy, and build something beautiful. These intricate games are made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of unique interlocking pieces and are available in a myriad of patterns and difficulty levels. Artists and creative businesses are continually exploring the limits of puzzles, inventing unconventional yet beautiful activities, such as a 1,000-piece circular representation of the Moon or a 500-piece reversible map of the Guggenheim Museum.

Although puzzles are often considered a leisure activity, its beginnings are rooted in education and the teaching of geography. Here we explore the history of puzzles to see how this tiling activity became a popular pastime for children and adults.

Ancient history of puzzles

Map of Europe by John Spilsbury

“Europe Divided into Her Kingdoms,” John Spilsbury, 1766. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

The first commercial puzzles were developed around 1760 by a British cartographer and engraver. John Spilsbury. He fixed a European map on hardwood and used a marquetry saw cut along the national borders of the countries. These prototypes were called “dissected maps», and were used as educational tools to teach geography to children.

Seeing that the first puzzles were well received, Spilsbury started a business and produced puzzles under eight geographic themes: the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland. These early puzzles were popular with wealthy households, including the British royal family.

the Second industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries greatly improved the process of making puzzles. Progress in lithographic printing techniques allowed puzzle makers to transfer higher quality prints onto wooden surfaces. And instead of using hardwood (like mahogany) to produce puzzles, manufacturers started using plywood-in which thinner layers of wood are glued together. This resulted in a lighter, more affordable material that was also easier to cut. Moreover, the invention of the pedal pedal saws enabled manufacturers to create nested parts at a rapid pace.

The name “jigsaw” refers to the specialized saws used to produce them, but it would not become commonplace until decades later.

Boom in popularity

Black and white photograph of someone solving a puzzle

Photo: Photos from the Everett Collection/Shutterstock

When the Great Depression hit America in 1929, puzzles experienced a huge rise in popularity. Instead of producing wooden puzzles, American companies began mass-producing cardboard puzzles using a new cutting technical. This greatly reduced the cost of puzzles. At a time when most families could not afford more expensive recreational activities, puzzles provided a recyclable form of entertainment.

In fact, because the puzzles were so cheap to make, advertisers used them as an opportunity to run promotional images. Other companies have explored more creative designs of fairy tales, castles, ships and nature. Around the 1900s, cardboard puzzles were the dominant product, and antiquated wooden puzzles became a rarer high-end item.

How they are made today

Now the production of puzzles is completely modernized and highly variable. Most manufacturers glue the desired image onto the sheet of cardboard, which is then fed into a machine that creates the interlocking shapes by pressing down with precise steel blades. Other companies use more advanced technologies such as lasers to create very unique pieces. The strength of laser cut also makes it easy to use a more durable material, such as hardwood or acrylic.

From this, unique and unconventional puzzles emerge that explore the specific parameters of secular activity.

Photo of a blue jigsaw puzzle

Cardboard puzzle (Photo: Jared Tarbell via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0])

Incredible puzzles

Puzzles have seen a resurgence in popularity in 2020 due to the coronavirus. The global pandemic, which has left the world in lockdown, has given way to more home activities like solving the humble puzzle. With this growing interest in this age-old hobby, designers began to get creative with the kind of puzzles people could put together and potentially hang like a piece of art. The finished piece was now almost like a beautiful trophy.

Puzzle “The Accident”

An animation studio turned puzzle-making studio, Yelldesign is one of the latest puzzle entrepreneurs to create a puzzle that makes you look twice. Called “The Accident”, this clear acrylic puzzle is inspired by a broken window.

Geode Puzzle by Nervous System

Puzzle “Geode”

Design studio Nervous System has also pushed the boundaries of puzzle creation with its series of highly unique and extremely difficult Geode puzzles. These maze-like puzzles are created by a computer simulation which creates natural simulations in shape, parts and image.

Moreover, the record of the biggest puzzle in the world seems to break in quick succession. Watch the video below to see the completion of the world’s largest single picture puzzle, featuring 42,000 coins.

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