Puzzle History

A brief history of jigsaw puzzles

Hand carved wooden puzzles, what we now call “jigsaw puzzles,” started out as educational tools for children in the 18th century. John Spilsbury, a British cartographer, is credited with producing the first “Jigsaw” puzzle in 1762. He glued a map to a flat piece of wood, carved around the country borders within the map, and brought his new puzzle to a local school to help children learn geography. The concept took off and the puzzle industry was born.

We get the term “jigsaw puzzle” from the jigsaw itself, which was invented in the 1880s. Other innovations throughout the 19th century also helped create the puzzles we know and love today. Plywood, introduced to America in 1865, provided a cheaper material that also supported more intricate cutting patterns. Progress in lithographic printing techniques made it easier to affix higher quality images, with brighter colors, onto the wood. Mechanical treadle, or scroll, saws also became much more common in the late 19th century. We technically use scroll saws today, but we agree “Jigsaw” just sounds better.

While it might sound like a new model, renting puzzles has a long history as well. During the Great Depression, people could rent puzzles for a nickel a night

Cardboard puzzles came about at the beginning of World War II, when the plywood used to make traditional jigsaw puzzles was redirected to the war effort. While lower quality, cardboard puzzles were much more affordable and easier to mass produce. Cardboard puzzles still dominate the market today. If you’re interested, you can see how cardboard puzzles are made here. It’s quite a contrast from our approach.  

Recently, modern laser technology has introduced a new type of wooden jigsaw puzzle. While both are technically wooden puzzles, the contrast between a laser-cut and a hand-cut one is quite noticeable. It all comes down to the fit, the feel, and the experience of interacting with quality craftsmanship. Lasers burn through the wood to make a cut, which causes the pieces to have a looser, less-satisfactory fit. Laser puzzles also use thinner wood that has a more plastic, less organic feel. Laser puzzles also lose the one-of-a-kind quality of hand-cut puzzles because because producers often re-use identical puzzle piece patterns on multiple images.

As for us, we still like doing things the old fashioned way. At Elms, we pride ourselves on keeping the tradition of hand cut puzzles alive because it produces the finest quality puzzles in the world.

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