Piecing Together the History of Jigsaw Puzzles

August 19th, 2008

Bob Armstrong recalls how he got started cutting and collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles, and describes their historical evolution in Europe and the U.S. Based in Massachusetts, Bob can be reached via his website, Old Jigsaw Puzzles, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.

New Dissected Map of World ca. 1888

What inspired me to collect old jigsaw puzzles? I grew up as a child with some wonderful world class puzzles in my household. They were puzzles my mother and grandmother picked up at the lending libraries in the 30s and 40s. When, libraries stopped lending puzzles, they picked up about 20 or 30 puzzles. I remember them as a boy.

Then when I got married in the 60s, we both had a love for jigsaw puzzles. So we went down to my grandparents’ house and found the puzzles that I grew up with. Then in the 70s we found two cutters, or jigsaw puzzle makers. Charles Russell in Auburn, MA and a guy named Roland Chesley up in Buckfield, Maine. He would cut puzzles out of his barn in the winter with only an old wood stove for heat. They cut us large puzzles for very good prices. We had three sons and we would do jigsaws on vacation and occasionally would throw a jigsaw party and invite all our friends over and set out a bar and put lots of puzzles out.

About 1990 I started thinking of what I would do after I retired. I went out and bought a scroll saw from Spags and set it up. Our youngest son has always been very good at crafts so we tried to learn how to cut jigsaw puzzles. Then I met Anne Williams, the leading expert, cutter, historian, and collector in the jigsaw field in America. She urged me to go to Brimfield’s flea market and that got me into collecting puzzles and restoring them. I’m not just a collector, I also do restorations to the old puzzles. I only cut a new puzzle for charitable causes.

“Cutting puzzles was better than the field and factory jobs men were doing.”

By the time I started collecting we had at least 100 puzzles, but I hadn’t yet conceived myself as a collector. A lot of people do that, they pick up some things and don’t want to be called anything. When I tried to start cutting puzzles, I wasn’t very good at it, so I moved into collecting and restoration. That was around 1992 and I’m trying to slow it down. I now have approximately 2,000 puzzles in my house, but only 1,000 I’d really consider important.

I focus primarily on wood puzzles from the first half of the 20th Century. And though I do have puzzles from other countries, I prefer wood puzzles cut in America. I just want to make sure puzzles go into the right hands, people who are really passionate about a certain era or type of puzzle, and I don’t want to see puzzles get thrown away. I would say there’s about 100 serious collectors out there, and probably another several hundred with sizable collections, but who don’t consider themselves collectors.

Collectors Weekly: Can you give me a history of the jigsaw puzzle?

Armstrong: The most proven theory is that in the 1760s a London mapmaker named John Spilsbury took one of his maps of Europe, glued it onto a piece of wood, took a coping saw and sawed around the nations. He put it in a very nice wooden box and sold it at an expensive price to the upper class people of London. He’s generally credited as being the first puzzle maker. It was picked up very quickly and for the next 150 years, jigsaws were cut as learning and entertainment tools for children, with large pieces. They were generally made of maps, and then they got into morality tales and Bible stories.

A Hasty Retrear: Charles Russell 1975

In the latter half of the 19th Century the pieces were still big so children could handle them. McLaughlin Brothers in New York City really started making some wonderful artwork, they were leading lithographers in the 19th Century. They would take their pictures and cut them into puzzles. Puzzles celebrated the American achievements, like fire engines rushing to a put out a fire, warships, steamboats, or Teddy Roosevelt charging up the hill in Cuba. They were cut pretty simply.

Somewhere around 1900 people began to experiment with smaller pieces, which were more appealing to adults. A woman in Boston advertised that she was going to charity craft shows and selling jigsaw puzzles cut for adults. So from Boston was the first surge of what we call adult jigsaw puzzles, cut in many small pieces, usually with scenes of people or families. There’s many of them on my website, it’s called the 1909 era. The craze swept down to New York and then over to London. Both sides of the Atlantic caught the bug and then the Europeans jumped in too.

So jigsaws really started in the 1700s but were only aimed at children and then somewhere in early 1900 came the first great era of puzzles. It died around World War I and then a huge surge came in the 1930s. There are even advertisements showing people carrying a tray around their neck as they walk along the street with jigsaw puzzles on top. They had little puzzles in individual boxes you could take with you. By that time the machines for cutting diecut cardboard puzzles had become strong enough and good enough to make puzzles by the millions.

It was the great depression so people were out of work and puzzles could be bought for a dime and that could be your entertainment. If you want to read about all of this check out Anne Williams’ two books. One published in 1990 called Jigsaw Puzzles: An Illustrated History and Price Guide, and the second one published 3 or 4 years ago and called Jigsaw Puzzles: Putting the Pieces Together.

Collectors Weekly: What are Arteno puzzles?

Armstrong: Out of the 24 puzzles my mother and grandmother salvaged from the libraries, there were about five cut by a little known company called Arteno. We loved them, it was a particularly interesting cut for us. The most famous one, which you can see on my website, is called “Checkers.” The checkerboard in that puzzle was saved for me as the youngest in the family.  It took me the longest to put together and it was only six pieces. I can remember the joy when I figured out those six pieces. So Anne Williams and I cooperated on this, she did a lot of serious research on the company and we came to the conclusion that the founder, James Binney, started cutting around 1920 with his first puzzles cut in the 1909 style, very simply cut along color lines.

Checkers ca. 1932 (Arteno example)

Most of the 1909 era puzzles were cut from solid wood. Once you cut them into small pieces you can’t cut them with knobs because they’d be too small and break off. So they’re just pieces cut in blobs and they’re very difficult to do, very precise cutting, as they cut along the color lines. Between 1909 and 1930, plywood came into the picture and powered scroll saws as well as diecutting machines, but Arteno puzzles are hand cut. While Binney started in the 1920s with 1909 era puzzles, he rapidly began cutting intricate puzzles and they got more intricate each year. In a sense he was ahead of the curve the way he was cutting puzzles.

Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the big jigsaw puzzle manufacturers?

Armstrong: Parker Brothers had the leading commercial line of puzzles in the U.S., called Pastime Puzzles. They were cut from 1908 to 1958 and were only cut by women. Many girls grew up with treadle sewing machines and the first way adult puzzles were cut was by treadle saws. Women had experience cutting fine things on tables like that, and I also think they hired women because they could be hired cheaper. The women formed a bond, and cutting puzzles was much better than the field and factory jobs the men were doing. Women were given the freedom to cut the puzzle pieces the way they wanted and in their own forms and they got to select the pictures and things like that.

Anne Williams interviewed on tape one of the last remaining cutters from that era and she happened to be one of the best cutters, and you could just see in her the fierce pride. They called themselves “The Girls” and they could do cutting that no one can do today, most cutters use patterns, but supposedly she and other women could just hold down the pattern and cut around it. Today all of us have to glue the pattern onto the puzzle, then peel it off after we cut around it. These women were good and they were proud and they cut 800,000 to a million puzzles in 50 years of cutting.

Entomologist ca. 1909

Another company is Milton Bradley from Springfield, MA. Their leading line of puzzles was called the Premier Line, but they were not as good as the Pastime Line. A third would be Madmar out in Utica, New York. Fourth is Raphael Tuck and Sons Ltd. London, England. They were lithographers and made color prints and got into the jigsaw puzzles in 1909 when the craze crossed the Atlantic. Their leading brand was called Zag-Zaw and they cut until 1940 when the Germans put a bomb directly into the plant. There are a lot of Victory puzzles made in England.

Another brand well-known in the U.S. is U-Nit cut by James Browning down in New Jersey. There’s also Par, two partners who were in the theater business and started tinkering around with cutting jigsaw puzzles. Instead of trying to make the cheapest puzzle possible, they tried to make the best despite cost… they are the Rolls Royce of puzzles. The partners cut from 1932 to 1972, and were located in New York City. I’ve purchased over 100 of their puzzles over the years and now I have a core collection of about 40 to 45.

Collectors Weekly: How many different cutting styles are there?

Armstrong: An infinite number. Today’s cutting styles are almost all interlocking because people prefer that so the pieces don’t fly apart. But back in the 1909 era, the puzzles were not interlocking. There’s a beauty and charm to those but you need a steady hand. There’s also figure pieces and a whole host of special cutting techniques which I’ve defined. I did not create these techniques, but I studied mine and Anne Williams’ puzzles and we came up with nearly all the techniques cutters have done and I synthesized them into one article posted on my website. I suggest it’s an important article for any new cutter or collector to read because it shows what you can do with puzzles and cutting.

Within the interlocking style, there’s round knobs, square knobs, and you could go on and on. There’s a very unique puzzle on my website called “Full of the Dickens,” that was secretly designed and cut by 14 different cutters around the county and given to me as a total surprise and it combines my ideas and techniques and all the things I’ve written about.

Collectors Weekly: What’s the most common damage you find while restoring puzzles?

Armstrong: Missing pieces and damaged knobs. Those interlocking knobs from the 1930s onward can become easily damaged during disassembly of the puzzle. As puzzles get older the plywood starts failing or chipping. There are very few other people in the world who will restore puzzles and cut new pieces. It doesn’t pay, this stuff is tough, grinding work. I want to teach people to do this and will gladly. I give workshops and invite people to my house to teach them.

Collectors Weekly: How do the images get put on the puzzles?

Armstrong: They glue a print onto the wood. There are a few puzzles that are original artwork, but cutting up original artwork is costly. So usually a print is glued on although most of today’s bigger cutters use dry mounts with a heat press.

Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention?

Bringing Home The Treasure ca. 1933

Armstrong: The world of collecting has changed dramatically since eBay. When I first started out you had to go to yard sales and flea markets and antique shops. Today if you want to, you can sit at home and build a collection very rapidly through internet auction sites. I think it takes a lot of fun out of the game and I think a smart person does both. I started out going to ephemera shows and flea markets. I urge anyone seriously collecting in any area, to get involved with that world and with the association in your area. Play a leading role and do a lot of research, write some articles, put up a website about your collection, because it opens whole new worlds. The Internet is wonderful for connecting people with specific interests world wide. There is one main puzzle collecting association, The Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors.

(All images in this article courtesy Bob Armstrong of Old Jigsaw Puzzles)

17 comments so far

  1. Judy Says:

    Do you have any information about J R Brundage Inc. “Things Unusual” on 200 5th Ave. in Nyew York? I have a jigsaw puzzle called Venetian Sails from the company. The box has a picture of the Empire State Building on it in kind of an art deco style. The pieces do not have knobs. But they have unusual shapes that butt up against one another. Any information on the age/value of the puzzle would be appreciated.

    Thanks.

  2. Jo-Ann Murch Says:

    I am hoping you could help me with information on a puzzle by Raphael Tuck entitled “The Thames, Showing the Tower & Tower Bridge”? ( Artist R F McIntyre) It has 750 pieces, is 29 X 19 ins , #.040, and is in its original red box. All pieces are included and all but 3 pieces are in mint condition. There are many figural pieces in this puzzle. What might the value be, what information do you have on this puzzle and lastly, I may be interested in selling— where could I sell it??
    Thanks for any help you can provide,
    Jo-Ann

  3. Lynn Says:

    Do you know where my husband and I could tour a puzzle making manufacturer in the USA ? We’d like to see how puzzles are made.
    Lynn

  4. Beverley Williams Says:

    I am hoping you may be able to help me with information on a puzzle entitled ” Salis’s Australia and it’s Scenes (Author T.H. Jones). It is wooden, with large pieces and measures 37cm x 28cm – sadly 2 pieces are missing. I think it is circa 1855 and is identical to the one featured on the National Library of Australis’s website and appears to have been exhibited. I have e-mailed the NLA for more information, but as yet they have not replied.

    I should be grateful for any help you can provide.

    Beverley

  5. Renee Says:

    I have a puzzle called CONVERGENCE by JACKSON POLLOCK. It has a picture of the puzzle rolled up in the box also. A sticker on the box says, THE WORLDS MOST DIFFICULT JIGSAW PUZZLE. Does this puzzle have any value? Thanks for any help you can give me.

    Renee

  6. Gill Smale Says:

    Ten years ago, or more I became friendly with an old lady who gave me 2 jigsaws. These jigsaws were made for her by two sisters – Kathleen and Ashley Rowe, Mount Hawke, Near Truro, Cornwall. The jigsaws didn’t come in boxes but were in hand sewn cotton bags so you had no clue other than the name on the label ‘Lady in pink’ as to what picture you were going to put together. The label also said the’Original Jig-saw Puzzle Club’.

    The old lady and her husband in the 1940′s would send photos from magazines to the sisters and the sisters would turn them into jigsaws for them to take on their travels.

    Have you heard of these ladies and their jigsaw club. I look forward to hearing from you. I am emailing from Wales

  7. Vicki Starner Says:

    I have a old wood puzzle of the United States. Still in the original box and all the pieces are intact. The box says J K Straus product. The puzzle says Rand McNally 19 x12 inch map of the United States. Looking for any information about it and its value.

  8. LB Says:

    I came across an old Milton Bradley Premier Jig Saw Puzzle. It is in a light blue box. There is a silver foil sticker on top of box that reads ‘Premier Jig saw Puzzles Milton Bradley Company Springfield, Mass.’ The title of the puzzle is ‘Friends of our Childhood’ and it is puzzle # 65-37. We put it together, and it was a beautiful gypsy looking girl captioned “Some Dreams Do Come True” at the bottom of the puzzle.

    I am trying to find out about this puzzle, and wondered, if you don’t know personally, if you may be able to steer us in the right direction. There is no year on the box, but if I had to guess, I’d say she was 1920′s, based on the artwork.

    The box has a what appears to have been a water spill on the outside of it, but the inside is immaculate. The tissue is original, the insert about Premier Picture Puzzles, and on the lid of box, a hand penciled set of initials of who sawed, sanded and inspected it. The puzzle itself is impecable as well, with the exception of one of the wodden pieces on her face. The pieces are very delicate, and it appears to have fallen apart a bit on this one piece.

    I am very excited about this, and am seeking any info I can find. I am curious about the year, if she holds any value, just anything at all.

    I do so appreciate your help.
    thanks!
    LB

  9. Michael Says:

    I have a old Walt Disney puzzle, from the Jaymar Specialty co., 200 fith AVE New York N.Y of Dumbo. What can you tell me about it.

  10. Jack Cowen Says:

    Trying to age a puzzle titled “A Llewelyn Pair”. It is in our Senior Center and is being put together now.

    Thanks

  11. Marian Petersen Says:

    I have two puzzles I remember putting together with my grandfather in the 1930′s – Currier & Ives prints – Einson-Freeman Co., Long Island City, NY -
    “American Hunting Scenes” and “A Midnight Race on the Mississippi.” There were six in the Americana series. Would you know if or where the others might be available? Thanks.

  12. Rosemary Cardoni Says:

    Cleaning closets, I came across a Plastic inlaid puzzle map of the United States by Hasbro…includes Hawaii and Alaska. It also includes the state capitals on plastic inserts. The box says 1967 Hassenfeld Bros., Inc, Pawtucket, R.I.,USA. .I know it is not that old but wonder if you know anything about it and if it has any value. It’s in good condition. Thanks for your help.

  13. jackie ball Says:

    my mom gave me an old puzzle its a wooden box with a few different old pictures but the puzzle is made of blocks of wood and u can rotate the blocks and it will make another picture very old, good condition the whole puzzle ic 6 by 8 and it fits perfectly [cubes] in the wooden box i never seen this before

  14. Jody Rinker Says:

    I found a puzzle at Goodwill and put it together. It was in very good condition and the box as well. I tried to do a history on it and all I could find out is that the original print was 1513-1514c. The puzzle is by Jaymar and is picture puzzle in the round. The painter Raphael and the title Madonna Della sedia. Do you have any info on this particular puzzle. Funny I can find 100′s of puzzles by Jaymar but not this one. Thank you Jody A. Rinker

  15. Glenn Says:

    There is a Wacky Packages 800-piece cardboard puzzle done by Jaymar (model 1537) in the 70′s. You can find these on eBay every few mths — mostly with 1 or 2 pieces missing. I’ve bought three incomplete puzzles hoping to combine to create one complete one. Turns out that EVERY puzzle I have is a different cut! Why!?

  16. Margaret T. Wieland Says:

    Enjoyed your History of Jigsaw puzzles. From a yard sale I have a two-sided
    puzzle, Sleighing in Winter, by Georgr H. Durrie and Stourbridge Lion by Clyde
    O. Delans from the Granger Collection of Robert S. Crandall. Also I have
    Their Guardian Angel. No 800-R Religious Series, Tuco Work Shops. Both puzzel , I feel are in very good condition as well as their boxes. I am 83 years old and live in a retirement home. With a few others we have found a new interest that is giving us a lot of joy and interest. We give our puzzles away but I have held on to the two named above. They intrigue me and I would love to know their ages and value if you can help me. My research is interesting but it has not answered these questions. Thank you for any help you may be able to provide. I will try to find Ann Williams books. Midge Wieland

  17. dennis boyd Says:

    I have a vintage puzzle from walt disney made in England of Dumbo and other farm friends Chicken Pig Rabbits Birds Cat and I cant find any info aty all can you help


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