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A Short History of Jigsaws

Like a surprising number of games and pastimes which have become established around the world - especially Association Football - the jigsaw originated in Britain. It was perhaps in 1761 - the year in which he married - that a young engraver and map-maker named John Spilsbury - originally from Worcester but who had recently completed his apprenticeship in London - established his own business in Russell Court, off Drury Lane, and, apparently as a side-line, came up with the idea of pasting maps of England onto boards of mahogany, cutting around the county boundaries with a fretsaw, putting the pieces into boxes, and selling them for children to assemble at home. Certainly by 1763 he was listed in a directory as a "Engraver and Map Dissector" established at Russell Court, whilst an advert has survived which lists 28 different disseated maps that could be provided - at prices from 7s 6d to 21s - a whole Guinea! These were the very first jigsaws.

The purpose of these very early jigsaws was not so much amusement as education. In the early years maps, and later other worthy subjects - like kings and queens - were the norm. Indeed, maps have always been a favourite topic for jigsaw-makers, and remain so to-day, whilst Eurographics, for one, continue to produce many jigsaws that are essentially educational in nature. But, of course, once the idea became established, very slowly new subjects were tried, and in the first half of the 19th c. the first jigsaws were made which captured popular subjects. Jigsaws, it was recognised, could also be fun.

Of course, these early jigsaws continued to be made out of wooden pieces. However, production techniques improved, prices came down, and by the early 20th c. there was a huge demand for jigsaws and a huge range available to meet that demand. Publishers such as Raphael Tuck, Chad Valley and G. Hayter, who used the brand name 'Victory', were the leading publishers, but there were many, many others. Some see the era between the two world wars as a golden age for the jigsaw.

But jigsaws remained relatively difficult to produce, production costs, therefore, remained relatively high, and this in turn limited the number of pieces that could be made whilst keeping jigsaws affordable. This started to change from 1933, when John Waddington & Co. introduced their first cardboard jigsaws.

The change from wooden to cardboard jigsaws took many years; cardboard jigsaws were perceived as inferior, and so for a while there remained a market for traditional wooden jigsaws. However, jigsaws with far more pieces could be produced, and more cheaply, and quality improved as well. Meanwhile, Raphael Tuck's business was devastated after their works and offices were destroyed during the war, and, after the war first Chad Valley and, eventually, G. Hayter also gave up the unequal struggle. The cardboard jigsaw had triumphed. Nevertheless, the manufacture of traditional wooden jigsaws has since been revived by Wentworth's, using the latest lasar-cutting technology. Even so, the basic economics remain the same - production is relatively slow, and, as with wooden jigsaws of the past, Wentworth's puzzles are more typically of 250 pieces, rather than 1000, because the 1000 piece jigsaws they do make are necessarily far more expensive than typical cardboard 1000 piece jigsaws.

And what of John Spilsbury? Well, sadly he died in 1769, at no more than 30 years of age. But the idea of this young map-maker has gone on to be enjoyed by millions.


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