Before they were called jigsaw puzzles these games were actually referred to as “dissections.” European cartographers would mount a map onto a piece of wood and then cut out each country. They would then use these “dissections” to teach students geography. Sound familiar? I know I remember filling in an empty map of the United States with wooden puzzle pieces when I was little. Texas always made it in first!
These “dissections” had been around since 1760, but it was not until the invention of the treadle saw (pictured at left) in 1820 that puzzles became a recreational activity. In the beginning, puzzles were only made with wood. This meant they were expensive to produce. Each puzzle had to be cut one piece at a time. Thus, they became a high society activity for adults to enjoy at their weekend vacation homes.
In the early 1900s, production of cardboard puzzles began. This dropped the price significantly. Puzzles became wildly popular during the Great Depression because they provided hours of entertainment for a comparatively small price, they were relaxing, and they offered a sense of accomplishment. Just think of the satisfaction that comes from placing in the very last piece! Puzzles became so popular that libraries even lent them out during the 1930s, charging three to ten cents per day.
Both wood and cardboard jigsaw puzzles remain popular today, the former mainly used in childrens’ puzzles. The manufacturing method used for puzzles is not very far off from the techniques they used in the early nineteenth century. Puzzles remain a timeless pastime: perfect for rainy (or hot!) days spent with good friends and family.