Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy
Antique jigsaw puzzles have a devoted following, a group of collectors who hunt for elusive complete puzzles and even more desirable missing pieces. The decorative images and satisfying feel of interlocking hand-cut wooden pieces make for a satisfying accomplishment, and this group of fringe toy collectors is eager to share their knowledge.
While some antiques have classification schemes and libraries of reference books, jigsaw puzzles are a little more mysterious. A few dedicated collectors and scholars are doing their part to remedy that, including Anne D. Williams, a historian of jigsaw puzzles and author of The Jigsaw Puzzle, Piecing Together a History, Bob Armstrong, a prolific puzzle collector and advocate, and Mark Cappitella, a maker of fine wooden jigsaw puzzles and collector.
Let’s start with the work of Anne Williams, whose Jigsaw Puzzles – a Brief History tells us that carved wooden jigsaw puzzles originated in the 1760s, with cartographers pasting maps onto wood and cutting out shapes with marquetry saws. The resulting “dissected map” was a fun and educational geography toy that has withstood the test of time.
Over the years, two major innovations advanced the popular puzzle industry: the advent of figure pieces and interlocking pieces. Figure pieces, first introduced by Parker Brothers in its “Pastime” brand puzzles, fascinated the public with wood cut into recognizable objects like animals or human figures. These puzzles were intrinsically easier, but their novelty made them just as popular, as they were almost like pictures within a picture. Interlocking pieces, referenced above, cut down on the risk of puzzles spilling everywhere. One could grab a corner of a completed section and pull it across the table without destroying hours of hard work. This style reduced the loss of pieces.
These innovations were so successful that in 1909 Parker Brothers ceased production on games and devoted its entire factory to the production of Pastime puzzles. Puzzles continued to dominate the toy scene through the Great Depression; sales reached their peak in 1933 with 10 million sold per week. Puzzles offered beauty and a sense of accomplishment for less than nights out on the town. Though initially expensive because of their hand-cut nature, during tough times unemployed carpenters and other artisans met the fervent demand by cutting jigsaw puzzles in their workshops and selling or even renting them. According to Williams, libraries also got in on the trend and offered puzzles to their patrons. A typical puzzle rental cost between three to ten cents a day, which is equivalent to around one dollar today.
Because puzzles reached their peak decades ago and were loved, played with, and even rented for frequent assembly, they are tricky to find in complete condition and in good shape. However, should you want to participate in a hobby that captivated so many, puzzle collector Bob Armstrong has some tips to share. Armstrong has worked out a classification system and hopes to create a language for us to describe wooden jigsaw puzzles. His system, outlined in Jigsaw Puzzle Cutting Styles: A New Method of Classification, focuses on five characteristics: the interlocking nature of the puzzle, the shape of the knobs (if it even has them), the shape of the lines between the knobs (or from piece to piece), the overall pattern, and any visible special techniques. Armstrong argues that “… consistencies in styles remain that can assist the collector in identifying the maker and era even when the original box is missing.”
Armstrong’s descriptions of puzzle make and types are very thorough, and can be found on his website. They are an invaluable resource to those learning about antique puzzles and how to get involved in collecting. An informative collector and a master puzzle maker, Mark Cappitella is another excellent resource. Cappitella’s website, mgcpuzzles.com, has several examples of antique and modern wooden jigsaw puzzles as well as detailed information about puzzle makers.
Though they are not the most investment-worthy of collectibles, wooden puzzles have an unmistakable appeal that made them top sellers for a couple hundred years. Their beauty, mystery, and the sense of accomplishment that they pass on to their owners is hard to duplicate in other collectibles. Do you want to be a sleuth and an artist as well as an antique collector? Maybe jigsaw puzzles are the missing piece in your collection.