Are you doing a jigsaw puzzle during your coronavirus lockdown? Perhaps you’ll be interested in this short history of the pastime:
The origins of jigsaw puzzles go back to the 1760s when European mapmakers pasted maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces. The “dissected map” has been a successful educational toy ever since. American children still learn geography by playing with puzzle maps of the United States or the world.
The eighteenth century inventors of jigsaw puzzles would be amazed to see the transformations of the last 230 years. Childrens puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment, showing diverse subjects like animals, nursery rhymes, and modern tales of superheroes and Disney. But the biggest surprise for the early puzzle makers would be how adults have embraced puzzling over the last century.
Puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States. Contemporary writers depicted the inexorable progression of the puzzle addict: from the skeptic who first ridiculed puzzles as silly and childish, to the perplexed puzzler who ignored meals while chanting “just one more piece;” to the bleary-eyed victor who finally put in the last piece in the wee hours of the morning.
The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evenings work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike childrens puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box; if the title was vague or misleading, the true subject could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place.
It is a terrible thing to admit, but I love jigsaw puzzles. It is a terrible thing to admit because I am a professor of English. I work in Texas, in the heartland, where I often get the impression that I am expected to be an ambassador for high culture to Middle America. Granted this authority, I could confess to loving almost anything else without shame. Baseball? A taste I share with philosophers and poets. Bewitched? The subject of Cultural Studies dissertations. Wonder Bread with gravy? My culture’s authentic cuisine. But when I say that I have a taste for jigsaw puzzles, I place myself beyond a social and intellectual pale.
In my crowd, there isn’t a single way in which jigsaw puzzles constitute an acceptable taste. First of all, there’s their status as reproductions. I know academics who would as soon march naked in a Fourth of July parade as own reproductions of art. Worse still, most jigsaw puzzles are not even reproductions of good art. They are reproductions of kitsch. In the 1950s and ‘60s there apparently were people who had a genuine appreciation for fluffy cats with big eyes, groups of sad clowns, rodeo cowboys in action, and blurry photos of the Tetons….
Worse still, doing jigsaw puzzles indicates a complete lack of originality. Your work is literally cut out for you. The puzzle is in a subclass of the kit or model – in fact, the lowest possible stratum of that subclass. Building a model ship from a kit is just barely respectable, because the product at least takes obvious skill and can charm the eye. And as anyone who had built such models knows, their most sophisticated form requires “kit-bashing”: scavenging bits from this kit and that, importing unsupplied materials, redrawing the instructions to suit yourself. You can’t kit-bash a jigsaw puzzle. Much as I might like to put Homer Simpson in the Sistine ceiling, the damn piece just won’t fit.
I enjoin you to read the whole thing if you have JSTOR access (actually, you can register and read 100 articles for free in this time of lockdown). But events have moved on since the article was published. Artist Tim Klein has discovered that puzzles of the same dimensions from the same manufacturer usually use the same die-cut pattern for the pieces, so you actually can do a bit of “kit-bashing.” Check out his Puzzle Montage website.
UPDATE: More from Ladbible. You can now get a 51300 piece puzzle for $500, a 2000-piece puzzle with no picture, and a 144-piece puzzle of transparent plexiglass.