by Christopher Proudlove
I was never really that interested in jigsaw puzzles as a lad. They were the kind of thing you were reduced to tackling when chicken pox or some other childhood ailment meant you were confined to quarters and couldn’t cope with anything more strenuous.
Now I’m a father myself, I find I’m fascinated by the things, but not as a pastime, more as intriguing collectors’ items, many of which have real wall-power when framed and hung together.
My interest was fuelled by the discovery of the amusing jigsaw illustrated here. It cost all of £5 and came complete with a box.
However, there was no illustration to help with its assembly, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a 1930s advertisement for bird seed and pet food! Since then, no fleamarket stone has been left unturned in the search for more.
John Spilsbury, the owner of a print shop in Russell Court, London, is generally regarded as the inventor of the modern-day jigsaw, in about 1760.
Spilsbury glued engraved hand-coloured maps on to thin mahogany boards, which were cut with a saw along the boundaries of countries and counties.
He called them “dissected puzzles” and they were used to teach children geography in an entertaining manner.
In 1787, another Englishman, William Darton, produced a puzzle showing portraits of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to George III.
History lessons were never so much fun, so long as you your kings in the correct order.
Images on the dissected puzzles were generally taken from contemporary engravings that were coloured by hand to make them more appealing.
Puzzles dating from the 1800s onwards were made from lithographic prints, which allowed much improved, four-colour designs.
Just as printing became mechanised, so too did the cutting on the puzzles. Earlier jigsaws had to be hand-cut with a coping saw, which forced makers to use simple repeating patterns.
Later examples were cut using a treadle-powered saw, but the process was still laborious and time-consuming.
Around 1840, makers began cutting their puzzles with the interlocking snap-in patterns familiar today.
They also cut their costs, replacing expensive hardwood veneers with backing of pine, softwood, plywood, and pasteboard. At last low-priced puzzles were affordable to everyone from rich to poor.
From around 1900, machine cutting was adopted, allowing more complex patterns and manufacturers also started making complex puzzles that would appeal to adults, rather than children.
The Golden Age of jigsaw puzzles came in the 1920s and 1930s with companies like Chad Valley and Victory producing a wide range of puzzles reflecting both the desire for sentimental scenes and the enthusiasm for the new technologies in rail and shipping.
Puzzle designs also became more intricate and difficult and they were sold as much to adults for challenging pleasure, as to children.
Companies like Cunard and The Great Western Railway also used them for advertising purposes.
In the 1930s, the need to cut costs in both materials and labour led to the development of the mass-produced cardboard puzzles that could be stamped out on giant industrial presses, and the decline of the jigsaw puzzle began.
By the end of the Second World War, the wooden jigsaw puzzle had all but disappeared.
Today’s collectors generally prefer wooden examples, but cardboard puzzles with interesting illustrations such as ocean liners or steam trains are also popular. Prizes range from £5 to £50, but be sure to buy only those that are absolutely complete. A single missing piece can render even the best jigsaw almost worthless.
Pictures show: left, my £5 fleamarket find and an image from the Superior Jigsaws range of replica Victorian puzzles: The Lover’s Letter