A short history of jigsaw puzzles

A cold wet miserable day and I’m standing in my local library, sheltering from the rain. I casually browse the bookshelves, flicking through the autobiographies. Something catches my eye.

Cars splash past but it’s the sign above the community noticeboard I spot. It directs visitors to climb the stone steps to the floor above to the museum. There’s another flyer pinned to the board advertising the latest exhibition – Henry VIII.

I’m intrigued and duly climb the steps. There are pictures on the walls of how the local town of Weybridge, Surrey used to look like in the 1920s through to the 1960s. Although only small, Elmbridge museum has a wide collection of historical memorabilia. There’s much to celebrate that’s local in this part of the world. Henry VIII had one of his (as I was later to find out) many palaces at Oatlands. This was also home to the first racing car circuit at Brooklands, the same area where Concorde was designed and parts built.

But it’s the corner of the room that grabs my attention. It’s of a Victorian School Room set. There’s a cane, a blackboard and dusty text books. Just like I had seen downstairs in the library there’s a jigsaw – this one is of a world map. I begin chatting to the museum curator and we talk about jigsaw puzzles. A search on the internet computer,tucked by the main enquiry desk, reveals that jigsaws were designed to help British children learn about geography. A London engraver and mapmaker called John Spilsbury mounted a sheet of hardwood around in 1760. What a great idea and a fun way to learn about the world around and so jigsaw puzzles began to grown in popularity, especially as an educational tool.

I learn that by 1880 different tooling was coming into use with the introduction of a fretsaw, not what we would know as a true jigsaw. Plywood was to come into use towards the end of the century. I found it fascinating to discover that illustrations were glued or painted to the front side of the wood. Jigsaw makers would make pencil tracings to the back of each jigsaw puzzle. This, however, all seems like a long way removed from when my grandmother helped us to do our own Christmas jigsaw, for fun.

Another revolution came in the 20th century for jigsaws – cardboard jigsaw puzzles. They were still mainly for children and the puzzles were die-cut. The technique of cutting jigsaw puzzles this way – imagine a giant cookie cutter – continues today.

Tim Mitchell

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