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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)