How Jigsaw Puzzles Got us Through the Pandemic Piece by Piece

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Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles are a popular brand of puzzles with kids and adults.

Like most people, when the pandemic hit, my husband and I intently watched the news and heeded the message to stay at home. We weren’t too concerned about how this would affect our jobs since we are lucky enough to have careers that allow us to easily work from home. But what would we do for entertainment? We couldn’t go out to dinner or the movies; we couldn’t hang out with family and friends. The weather was pretty miserable so even going for a walk was problematic. We of course had television and books, but we needed something more. Glancing around the family room, I spied some objects on a bottom shelf: jigsaw puzzles. I quickly breathed a sigh of relief…we were going to survive!

In between conference calls, Zoom meetings, and working at our computers, putting together a puzzle was a good distraction from what was going on in the world. At first, we tried to work together on one. Our first attempt was a Jane Austen-themed jigsaw puzzle. It was mine, so for some reason, I immediately became very possessive about it. It was hard to work simultaneously without annoying one another, so we took turns. But then, of course, it became very competitive. I’m still not sure who exactly put the last puzzle piece in place; we both declared victory.

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Jigsaw puzzles like this Liberty puzzle were originally made out of wood.

A Piece of History

While most of us can recall playing with jigsaw puzzles when we were younger, their popularity goes back even further. In fact, according to historians, the first jigsaw puzzle dates back to the year 1760 and was invented by an English man named John Spilsbury. He was an engraver and mapmaker, which makes sense since most early puzzles were of maps. In fact, think about your own first introduction to jigsaw puzzles. No doubt it was a map of the United States, right?

Originally, jigsaw puzzles, which were made of wood, were seen as strictly child’s play. But eventually, starting in the early 1900s, these “toys” became very popular with adults. Historians say the early adult versions were very challenging. The pieces didn’t interlock so they could get easily shifted out of place, and one would have to start from the beginning. Another challenge was that early adult puzzles did not have a picture of the finished product on the box.

Early jigsaw puzzles, such as this one featuring Dick Tracy, were marketed toward children.

Puzzle Pricing and Procuring

The early jigsaw puzzles were cut by hand so, in the beginning, they were rather expensive. Puzzles were for the rich since the average American didn’t have the means to spend even $5 on entertainment. When Parker Brothers began manufacturing jigsaw puzzles under the brand Pastime, they were suddenly brought into the hands and living rooms of the masses. Prices came down and jigsaw puzzles’ popularity went up. During the Great Depression, puzzles were a very popular and affordable means of entertainment. Stores and libraries even started “renting” puzzles for a few cents per day. Other puzzle brands such as Ravensburger and Liberty remain popular today.

Just from talking to friends and family, I know my husband I weren’t the only ones rediscovering the simple joys and challenges of putting together puzzles. I also know how hard it was to find puzzles once we finished the two or three I found in our home. Puzzles were passed around my neighborhood, after wiping and/or spraying them with disinfectant, of course! I did try to purchase some online, but everything was either sold out or ridiculously expensive. I was finally able to score two new reasonably priced puzzles from a local bookstore that started selling them online.

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Par puzzles are one-of-a-kind, handcrafted jigsaw puzzles that sell for thousands of dollars!

I recently read an article in the New York Times about a father and son who operate a business called Par Puzzles. They create one-of-a-kind, handcrafted jigsaw puzzles that sell for thousands of dollars! Their puzzles are made in the same manner as they were made when the company was founded in 1932. The two men still cut the pieces out of wood and it takes days to make just one puzzle. In its heyday, clients included Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, and the Rockefellers. Since the pandemic, the company has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. The owners have thought about using laser cutting to make their puzzles and selling limited editions, all of which would enable them to lower their prices. But, for now, things will remain the same.

The Enduring Popularity of Jigsaw Puzzles

So, I guess we could agree that at least one good thing came out of this pandemic: jigsaw puzzles are popular once again. It’s a simple form of entertainment that adults and kids alike can enjoy. You can do it alone or with others (as long as you keep the competition friendly). And, unless you want a one-of-a-kind puzzle that’s handmade, it’s a pretty affordable hobby. Best of all, when you place that last piece down, and your jigsaw puzzle is complete, you are sure to experience a great sense of accomplishment.

Lisa Mancuso has an Associates Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Bachelors Degree from Stony Brook University. She has worked as the Associate Director for Creative Marketing at McCall’s Magazine. As a staff writer at the National Association of Professional Women, Lisa wrote feature articles for the bi-monthly online newsletter. She has served as a reporter for the Northshore News Group and ICD Publications.

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