Monday, June 20, 2016

A Puzzling History

by Erin Doane, curator

I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles. Give me a good 1000-piecer and I will stay happily busy for some time. The museum has a nice little collection of historic jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles were first commercially produced in England around 1760. Early puzzles had images painted or adhered to thin wood sheets that were hand-cut into pieces. The term “jigsaw” was first used around 1880. Maps were particularly popular subjects of early puzzles and were used as education tools. By around 1900, adults were taking an interest in completing puzzles as a leisure activity. By 1908, adult jigsaw puzzles had become a full-blown trend in England and the United States.

Tuck's Zag-Zaw Picture Puzzle, wood, c. 1927
The museum has two hand-cut, wooden jigsaw puzzles made by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, England. They were given to Elmira musician and artist TalithaBotsford in 1927 and then found their way to the museum some 40 years later. The company was founded in 1908 and started its Zag-Zaw line of puzzles in 1909. The puzzles were known for including figurative pieces along with the standard-cut pieces. Tuck & Sons continued making puzzles until World War II when its factory was destroyed during the German blitz.

Figurative pieces from Tuck's puzzle
All of the Tuck’s puzzles came in basic red or orange boxes without any image of the subject. Each had a paper label on the bottom with a handwritten title, the name of the artist, the approximate piece count, and size. One of Talitha’s puzzles was entitled Glorious Days of Summer Flowers by E. Fisher. It has around 100 pieces and measures 10 x 7 ½ when completed. Unfortunately, I could not read the label on the second puzzle so I am not entirely sure of its subject. My guess is that it is a Dickensian scene as the company seemed to specialize in creating puzzles of subjects from Dickens' novels. Someday I may have a chance to put the puzzle together and find out for sure.

Glorious Days of Summer Flowers, wood, c. 1927
Label on the back of the puzzle box
Cardboard jigsaw puzzles were first made in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression in the 1930s they became very popular. Hand-cut, wooden puzzles were expensive while die-cut, cardboard puzzles could be purchased for as little as ten cents each. In 1932, a newsstand in Boston, Massachusetts offered different weekly puzzles. Cardboard puzzles were also popular in advertising and as promotional items for various products.

Arabian Chiefs Perfect Picture Puzzle, cardboard, c. 1930s-40s
The museum has a cardboard “Perfect Picture Puzzle” made by the Consolidated Paper Box Company of Somerville, Massachusetts. The company was organized in 1931 and began making cardboard jigsaw puzzles a year later. They started including a picture of the puzzle’s subject on the box lid in 1934. The Arabian Chiefs was probably made sometime in the late 1930s or 1940s. It is die-cut cardboard with a color image. The fun thing is that it appears to be printed on both sides. Picture Perfect Puzzles were made until around 1961.

Two-sides of the same Perfect Picture Puzzle piece
The popularity of jigsaw puzzles as adult entertainment began to wane in the 1950s. I blame television. Yet, they did remain common as children’s educational toys. I’m sure many people remember Playskool’s brightly colored wooden puzzles. The Playskool Institute was founded in 1928 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The company made durable, educational, wooden toys for young children.  The museum has a collection of four Playskool puzzles from the 1960s including two rabbits, a duck, and a panda.

13-piece wooden panda puzzle by Playskool, 1960s
One additional puzzle that was just added to the museum’s collection two years ago is one that I find a bit odd. It is a die-cut cardboard puzzle made by F.M. Howell & Company of Elmira. It shows an aerial view of the city taken at 2:30pm on Friday, June 23, 1972 – during the massive flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. The Howell factory is circled in red. It is a wonderful, commemorative piece but it is also only cut into 12 pieces, which makes me think that it was intended for children. Puzzling, but historically interesting.

F.M. Howell & Company puzzle, cardboard, 1972

1 comment:

  1. puzzling story to say the least (smile) very informative and fun to read, even today My Mom likes to do the puzzles and my Uncle does them then uses a form of lacquer to seal the puzzle to the board then frame it making a long lasting wall decoration, thanks for the very interesting story!