The Origin of Puzzles: The Exciting History of Jigsaws

Jigsaw puzzles have been a beloved form of entertainment for years - and will be for many more to come. From small to large, easy to challenging, solo execution to full-fledged family involvement, puzzles are a viable screen-free option in the tech-driven world we live in. 

But, where did this unique game come from? Who invented puzzles, and why? We’ve got the answer to these questions and more as we deep dive into the history of puzzles. 

Puzzle Origin: When Were Puzzles Invented?

Believe it or not, jigsaw puzzles came to fruition for educational purposes, specifically as a way to teach students geography (we certainly believe it - just look at our solar system collection if you need more proof). Subjects expanded to include botany, history, alphabets, and zoology.

Cartographer John Spilsbury concocted the idea in 1760 by placing a map on a piece of hardwood and cutting out the national boundaries with - you guessed it - a saw. These creations were deemed “dissected maps” before they became the puzzles we know today. Notable users of these original puzzles were the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte, taught by the royal governess, Lady Charlotte Finch. 

Fun fact: Puzzles often brushed hands with royalty. The late Queen Elizabeth II was also an avid puzzler. 

What’s in a Name?

So how did “dissected maps” become “jigsaw puzzles”? The naming is something of a misnomer. The term “jigsaw” became associated with puzzles in the 1880s when fretsaws became the popular tool to use for cutting shapes. In the entirety of the jigsaws history, though, never has a jigsaw been used during the puzzle creation process. “Fretsaw puzzles” just don’t roll off the tongue like “jigsaw puzzles” do. And, I don’t know about you, but I have to say I’d rather jig than fret. 

The Rise of Jigsaw Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles really popped off during the Great Depression, as they were a relatively priced form of entertainment that everyone in the family could be involved in during a period of time when money was tight. Not only were puzzles affordable, but they were also long-lasting and could be completed over and over again. If the pieces didn’t go missing, that is. 

At that point in time, jigsaw puzzles also evolved to be more complex, and thus, more appealing to adults. Imagery moved from geographic patterns and nature scenes to product advertising and promotions. Oftentimes, companies gave out puzzles that featured one of their products, further encouraging consumerism. 

Evolution of the Jigsaw Puzzle

After World War II, the sale of original wooden puzzles faced a decline as more modern designs were created using paperboard backing. It didn’t happen overnight, though. Paperback puzzles were perceived to be of lower quality and the profit margins for wooden puzzles were (not surprisingly) larger. As society began to recover after the Great Depression and salaries - and prices - increased, the manufacturing process of creating paperback puzzles was much improved and continued to increase their attractiveness. 

Gone were the days of having to painstakingly paint a picture onto a plank of wood and cut each of the pieces out individually. By the 1930s, hydraulic presses were utilized and puzzles could be mass-produced, though still limited to large corporations. That process eventually evolved into roller-press options that were more cost-effective for smaller companies to produce their own, lending more variety to the puzzle world. 

Today, jigsaw puzzles are even more complex. With laser-cut technology, puzzle pieces not only fit together more seamlessly, but they are also more durable and can withstand repeated use for more extended periods of time (your grandchildren could theoretically piece together a puzzle you completed long before their parents were even a thought). It’s also possible to create custom-designed puzzles in various shapes, sizes, and dimensions. 

Why limit yourself to a rectangular puzzle when you can challenge yourself further with a circular one? Take it a step further and really test yourself by trying out an impossible puzzle

The Beloved Puzzle in Summary

Puzzles may have begun as a form of education, but they are so much more than that today. While you can still learn a thing or two from completing puzzles (patience, determination, the distance at which you can throw it across the room in frustration…), they are a source of entertainment that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time.