The Not-So Puzzling History of Jigsaw Puzzles


Heinrich Hüntelmann, spokesman of game producer Ravensburger, holds the last piece of the biggest series-produced puzzle worldwide in his hands in 2016. The puzzle consists of a total of 40320 pieces, is 6.8 metres wide and 1.9 metres high. PHOTO: FELI

One of our favorite ways to spend a cozy winter afternoon is to gather with friends and family around a jigsaw puzzle. Although they can be challenging and frustrating at times, jigsaw puzzles provide a vehicle for a group project and cheap entertainment. You may have fond memories from your childhood of piecing together a puzzle with your grandparents. But have you ever wondered who made the first jigsaw puzzle and why? You’re in luck. That’s what we are going to discuss.

Two and a Half Centuries Ago

To learn about the history of jigsaw puzzles, we have to go all the way back to 1762 to the time when John Spilsbury, a British cartographer, lived. Spilsbury, who has an older brother named Jonathan, just to make things confusing, was an apprentice to Thomas Jefferys, who was the Royal Geographer to King George III. Spisbury was a bit of a geography nerd and he felt strongly that kids of the time were lacking in their knowledge of world geography. He believed he was just the man to correct that problem. 

The first jigsaw puzzles were educational tools to teach geography. (

A Teaching Tool

In 1766, John Spilsbury was ready to introduce his geography teaching tool. His goal was to offer an educational tool disguised as a toy. What he did was to glue a world map to a piece of thin wood. He cut out each country into individual pieces. Youngsters were supposed to arrange the pieces into the right positions. Spilsbury was so sure that his map game would be a hit that he made eight different puzzles. In addition to a world map, he made an Europe map, a map of the United Kingdom, one of Asia, one of Africa, and one of the Americas.

Spilsbury called his puzzles ‘dissected maps’ and he promoted them for educational purposes. It seems that the puzzles were well-received. In fact, Lady Charlotte Finch, the royal governess, used Spilsbury’s dissected maps to teach geography to the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

A Jigsaw? Not Quite Yet

The original puzzles, or dissected maps, that John Spilsbury created were not cut apart using a jigsaw, despite the name. He used a marquetry saw. What’s a marquetry saw, you ask? It is a small saw that is used to cut veneer pieces that will be applied to an object, like a piece of furniture, to form decorative patterns. Most likely, this is the tool that John Spilsbury had at his disposal so that’s what he used. Or it could be that the marquetry saw was best suited for cutting the wooden puzzle pieces.

The jigsaw, for which the puzzles are now named, was invented in the mid-1800s. In fact, the puzzles saw a tremendous resurgence in popularity at this time and it wasn’t all due to the invention of the jigsaw.

Jigsaw Puzzles in the 1800s

By the 1800s, Spilsbury’s dissected maps underwent a transformation. First, the puzzles were no longer made of wood. They were made of plywood or cardboard, which was less costly. That lowered the cost of the puzzles, making them more affordable for the average family. Second, lithographic printing methods had advanced to be able to mass produce quality, colorful images on the puzzles. No longer just maps, the puzzles could feature a variety of designs. One of the most popular jigsaw puzzles of the mid-1800s was called ‘The Star of the West’ which was an image of a man and a horse. We also see puzzle makers using the images on their puzzles and the degree of difficulty to appeal to adults as well as children. 

circa 1945: A young boy sits at a table, putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a windmill. He has one arm in a sling. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

And Then There’s the Saw

The jigsaw was designed to cut curved lines and intricate shapes. This was just what puzzle makers needed. But when the tredle jigsaw was invented, puzzle companies upped their game. They could now create more unique and challenging shapes for their puzzles.

Whimsy Puzzles

Whimsy puzzles were a variation of jigsaw puzzles that were popular in the Victorian era. Whimsy puzzles were basically a jigsaw puzzle, but the shapes were cut in unique, or whimsical, shapes. In some of the puzzles, the shapes were cut to resemble familiar items, like animals, even if the image on the puzzle did not include those items. For example, in one puzzle for the era, people had to arrange and fit together a bunch of pieces that were all shaped like elephants. Once assembled, the puzzle was a floral scene.

The other type of Whimsy puzzles was much more challenging for people to assemble. In these, the individual colors on the image were cut out. Imagine trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle when each piece was one solid color. That technique in which you try to put similar colors together … that wouldn’t work with these. 

An 1860s jigsaw puzzle of Mount Vernon, created by Philadelphia puzzle makers Thomas Wagner and Jacob Shaffer. (

Jigsaw Puzzles and the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, jigsaw puzzles saw another spike in popularity. The puzzles were cheap, fun, family entertainment during a period of economic hardship for Americans. Puzzles were passed between families so folks could enjoy the challenge of a new puzzle from time to time.

At this time, jigsaw puzzles were sometimes used as marketing tools for companies. In the late 1920s, a puzzle with a steam engine on it was used as a giveaway to promote the railways. The Queen Mary luxury liner had its own promotional jigsaw puzzle in 1934. It was not uncommon for automobile manufacturers to make promotional jigsaw puzzles with the images of their newest cars.

Jigsaws and Covid

While jigsaw puzzles have never gone out of fashion, their popularity ebbs and flows. In 2020, puzzle makers noted another big spike in jigsaw puzzle sales. During the lockdowns of the Covid Pandemic, people asked to stay home began looking for ways to keep their families entertained while connecting with each other. The jigsaw puzzle fit the bill. Families could spend hours sitting around the table, working on a puzzle together … without electronic devices. All thanks to John Spilsbury and his desire to teach geography to children some 260 years ago.