History of Jigsaws
Historical discoveries are coming along all the time but here, as best we can
make out, is the story so farâ€¦â€¦
The first jigsaw was made. John Spilsbury (an Englishman) mounted a map of
England on a thin sheet of mahogany board, used a hand held fretsaw to cut round
the county boundaries and sold the boxed pieces for children to assemble. They
were known as "Dissected maps". During the next 40 years several other
manufacturers (including individuals in Holland) copied John Spilsbury's ideas
and introduced historical scenes to compliment map subjects.
In the early part of the century, puzzles were made almost exclusively for
wealthy children and almost always with education in mind. To save on cutting
labour the puzzles consisted of only a few large pieces and only the outside
interlocked â€“ the rest was cut quickly with straight or wavy lines. The wood
used was usually Mahogany or Cedar.
The jigsaw named â€œThe Parable of the Sowerâ€ on the right was cut by Betts in
about 1870 and typifies the style of jigsaws up to that date. Only the outside
pieces interlock and the quality of the print is very poor by modern standards.
Towards the end of the century great strides were made in many manufacturing
techniques and three of these influenced jigsaws:
- Treadle operated jigsaws were invented.
- Techniques were developed to produce THIN sheets of wood.
- Printing improved in leaps and bounds.
These technological advances enabled jigsaws to be made that were much more
intricate, durable and colourful. Adults became interested in doing jigsaws and
this spurred the manufacturers to widen the range of subjects available and to
make them more difficult to do. It became evident that colourful, complex
jigsaws held a fascination for many people.
In the late 1800â€™s a German furniture dealer named Raphael Tuck and his two sons
developed 4 techniques that set the scene for jigsaw development into the next
- Their subjects included many varied and colourful topics.
- Cutting was made more intricate and included "Whimsies" â€“ individual
pieces cut into recognisable shapes like animals and household goods.
- Plywood and thick card started to be used instead of expensive hardwood.
- Attractive boxes (that for the first time included an image of the uncut
puzzle) were introduced.
Those with an interest in history might like to know that Raphael Tuck was also
instrumental in the development of other industries â€“ he is credited with the
first commercial production of Christmas cards and also the first picture
postcards. He set up printing establishments in London, Paris and New York and
in 1893 he received the Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria for printing the
Queenâ€™s letter to the nation on the occasion of the death of the Duke of
The ideas of Raphael Tuck and his family were adopted in American and by 1908 a
full-blown craze was underway there. Likewise in England, the rich embraced
jigsaws to the extent that they became THE pastime amongst the well-to-do.
The First World War (1914 -1918) temporarily curtailed activities but things
soon picked up again afterwards. By 1929 the Americans were buying two million
jigsaws a week and every self-respecting English dinner or tea party demanded a
jigsaw or two!
To meet the booming demand, and to save on costs, enterprising jigsaw
manufacturers like Chad Valley and G.H. Haytor ("Victory" puzzles) developed the
technique of "Stack cutting". This involved up to 8 jigsaws laid on top of each
other, fastened together and all cut simultaneously. Nonetheless, cutting
jigsaws was still time consuming and therefore expensive.
The â€œTuck puzzleâ€ to the right was made in about 1930. Compare the intricacy of
the cut with that of the Parable of the Sower (above) that was cut 60 years
earlier. The Tuck family continued to experiment with new techniques throughout
their lives and it is they who did most to ensure the enduring popularity of
In the 1920's an American company developed a technique for die cutting
cardboard jigsaws that reduced production costs to a tiny fraction of the cost
of cutting by hand. Waddingtons bought this know how in 1933 and the process
revolutionised the popular perception of jigsaw puzzles. Now puzzles containing
up to 1,000 intricately cut pieces became readily available at a price that
everyone could afford. However, it took until the 1950's for production
techniques to be improved to the extent that cardboard puzzles could be termed
"Good quality". The technique for cutting these puzzles has not changed
What has changed is the quality of printing, with the large jigsaw companies
like Jumbo and Ravensburger now using superb quality images. Whether your
preference is for art reproductions, photographs, sparkling special effects, or
even â€œGlow in the darkâ€ you will find quality jigsaws that you will be delighted
to make and hang up as room decorations.
What of the Future?
In the world of cardboard jigsaws there is little that can be done to improve
the cut or quality of the puzzles â€“ the production techniques are nearly
perfect. Innovative manufacturers have constantly found new images to charm,
thrill, baffle and bemuse us and there is no reason to suspect that this will
Wooden puzzles are generally more durable than cardboard puzzles and are often
the preferred choice for investments. The question is how to manufacture wooden
puzzles at an affordable price? Technology may provide the answer in the form of
controlled lasers and water jets for automated cutting. These amazing devices
might just give wooden puzzles a sporting chance of success in the twenty first
With sincere thanks to Mr Tom Tyler â€“ probably the most knowledgeable, and
certainly the most enthusiastic jigsaw-puzzler that we have ever known.
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