Jigsaw Puzzles, a Popular Pastime

[Note: The recent heat took a toll on my creativity this week so below I offer a column that was originally published in June of 2001. This was the second of two columns about the history of jigsaw puzzles and was prompted by a discussion my mother had with a customer in the bookstore on Memorial Day weekend in 2001.]

The fortunes of jigsaw puzzles (and jigsaw puzzle manufacturers) underwent a dramatic change with the onset of the Great Depression. Contrary to almost any other commodity, jigsaw puzzles witnessed a boom in this country unlike any other product-centered fad in the history of this country. Puzzle historian, Anne Williams, explained the phenomenon this way:

“Puzzles seemed to touch a chord, offering an escape from troubled times, as well as the opportunity to succeed in a modest way. Completing a jigsaw gave the puzzler a sense of accomplishment that was hard to come by when the unemployment rate was climbing above 25 percent. With incomes depleted, home amusements like puzzles replaced outside entertainment like restaurants and night clubs.”

As carpenters, craftsmen, and even architects found themselves suddenly unemployed, the making of jigsaw puzzles became a way to generate at least some income. Cutting jigsaw puzzles became a cottage industry during the Depression, with local manufacturers either selling or renting their creations. The positive side, for the consumers, was that the cost of puzzles dropped considerably. Local dime stores and libraries even began offering jigsaw puzzles for rent, charging rates that ranged from 3 cents to 10 cents per day, depending on the complexity and popularity of the puzzle.

By 1933 jigsaw puzzles had become so popular that they were being sold at a rate of 10 million puzzles per week! That is not a typo, folks.

Until 1931, all jigsaw puzzles were manufactured from wood. But the introduction of die-cut wood puzzles occurred late in that year and dramatically changed the entire nature of puzzling. Mass production from inexpensive cardboard allowed manufacturers to dramatically reduce the prices they charged. Soon advertisers, eager to capitalize on the popularity of puzzles began offering a free puzzle with the purchase of their product. The purchase of anything from a toothbrush to shampoo included a free puzzle which the happy consumer would take home and spend hours solving – to the delight of the advertisers whose “product” lay on the dining room table entertaining happy consumers.

In the fall of 1932, another innovation hit the marketplace: weekly puzzles. These die-cut puzzles retailed for 25 cents each and reached the newsstands every Wednesday. Consumers flooded the stand each week to buy the new release and raced to be the first to complete the puzzle among their circle of friends. Among the dozens of series that soon were offered were titles like “Jig-of-the-Week,” “Picture Puzzle Weekly,” “B-Witching Weekly,” and “Movie Cut-Ups.”

While the die-cut cardboard puzzles helped to swell the popularity of puzzle solving and collecting, the manufacturers of wooden puzzles soon found it difficult to compete. Unable to match the price point offered by the cardboard puzzles, many wooden puzzle manufacturers began to convert to die-cut or simply close their doors. Parker Brothers Pastime line was one of the exceptions, managing to retain a loyal following despite their higher price. Yet something remarkable was about to occur.

In 1932, two unemployed young men sat down at their kitchen table and hand-cut their first puzzle. Their names were Frank Ware and John Henriques, and this first puzzle was the beginning of Par Puzzles.

Most of us have probably never heard of Par Puzzles, but they were (and still are) known as the “Rolls Royce of jigsaw puzzles.” Flying in the face of every trend in the industry, Par hand-cut every puzzle they made and continually worked to improve their product. Their customers became wealthy industrialists, movie stars, and even royalty. They specialized in customized puzzles, which often entailed cutting the owner’s initials or birth date as figure pieces into the puzzle. Indeed figure pieces were a common element of all Par puzzles, including their signature seahorse pieces.

They also perfected the irregular edge, thereby frustrating puzzle solvers who were accustomed to building a border and working inward to solve the puzzle. And just to make the puzzle solving even more interesting, Par puzzles came with “par times” – target times in which the puzzle could be theoretically completed. In every case, according to owners Ware and Henriques, someone within their company had been able to complete the puzzle within the “par time,” but these times were more often than not all but impossible except for the most skilled puzzle solvers. Nonetheless, the times added greatly to the challenge and thereby added to the popularity of Par Puzzles.

By the 1960s improvement in printings and die cutting began to make cardboard puzzle more attractive than ever before. Springbok debuted high-quality fine art reproductions in their puzzle and in 1965 printed Jackson Pollack’s “Convergence,” which they billed as “the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle.” Thousands upon thousands of Americans tested their skill against Springbok’s claim.

Following WWII, the rising wage scale made wooden puzzles even more expensive. Parker Brothers Pastime line stopped manufacturing in 1958, Frank Ware retired in 1974, effectively ending Par Puzzles. It seemed that the age of wooden jigsaw puzzles had come to an end.

Steve Richardson and Dave Tibbetts had other ideas, however. Like Ware and Henriques of an earlier generation, Richardson and Tibbetts revived the high quality wooden puzzles with their company, called Stave Puzzles (which is the company that the customer in the bookstore originally mention and that led me to write these two column on jigsaw puzzle history). While many of the feature of Stave Puzzles are identical to Par (including and emphasis on customized puzzles, figure pieces, irregular edges, and target solving times) Stave has gone even further.

Among the unique features Stave has incorporated are pop-up figure pieces, specially commissioned artwork designed to interact with the cutting patterns, and trick puzzles that can be solved in any number of ways, but only one correct way. While the prices are high, Stave’s success has led many smaller companies to venture into the creation of wooden jigsaw puzzles, utilizing computers, lasers, and water jet cutting technology to produce puzzles that are considerably more affordable.

So that’s what a casual conversation with a customer in the bookstore can lead to. Next week a new subject…of some sort…from some inspiration source.