Recent articles have commented on how fast the demand for jigsaw puzzles has risen during the coronavirus lockdown. One of the largest manufacturers reported a rise of 370 percent for a recent two-week period over the same period last year.
I’m part of the reason for that rise. I hadn’t done any jigsaw puzzles since I was a kid and now, suddenly, I’m an addict. Naturally, being a wordsmith, I wanted to know why jigsaw puzzles are called jigsaw puzzles.
A jigsaw is a tool with fine teeth and a narrow blade which can cut curves in wood or metal. With the right blade, you can cut shapes in a variety of materials. A jigsaw puzzle, on the other hand, is a tiling puzzle that requires the assembly of differently shaped interlocking pieces. Typically, each individual piece has a portion of a picture; when assembled, the jigsaw puzzle produces a complete picture.
John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver, is credited with commercializing jigsaw puzzles around 1760. The name “jigsaw” came to be associated with the puzzle around 1880 when fretsaws became the tool of choice for cutting the shapes. Since fretsaws are distinct from jigsaws, the name appears to be a misnomer. They should be called fretsaw puzzles.
Most modern jigsaw puzzles are made out of paperboard since they are easier and cheaper to mass-produce than the original wooden models. An enlarged photograph or other two-dimensional artwork is glued onto the cardboard before cutting. This board is then fed into a press. The press forces a set of hardened steel blades of the desired shape through the board until it is fully cut. This procedure is similar to making shaped cookies with a cookie cutter. The forces involved, however, are tremendously greater and a typical 1000-piece puzzle requires a press that can generate upwards of 700 tons of force to push the knives of the puzzle die through the board.
New technology has enabled laser-cutting of wooden or acrylic jigsaw puzzles. The advantage of cutting with a laser is that the puzzle can be custom cut into any size, any shape, with any size (or any number) of pieces. Jigsaw puzzles come in a variety of sizes for adults, anywhere from 300 pieces to 40,000 pieces. The largest commercially available puzzle has 52,110 pieces, which is downright scary to somebody who regards a 1,000 piece jigsaw as a challenge.
Jigsaw puzzles soared in popularity during the Great Depression, as they provided a cheap, long-lasting, recyclable form of entertainment. The same rise in popularity has happened since early this year, for the same reasons.
I appreciate the way jigsaw puzzles, like contract bridge, make me focus completely on the game. Both are a pleasant escape from ordinary life. It’s very satisfying to play a good hand or complete a whole picture.
Somebody commented that it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Maybe so but, while I don’t plan on framing any completed jigsaws, I must admit that I do admire mine for at least a couple of days after I’ve finished them.
But I couldn’t have got there without the journey, could I?