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The history of jigsaw puzzles

colour photograph, jigsaw pieces falling out of a yellow cardboard cylinder tube.

From an invention by a London cartographer to competitive puzzling championships

by
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Jigsaw puzzles have been a beloved toy for centuries, captivating both young and old across the globe. This blog looks at the history of jigsaw puzzles, from their origins in the 18th century until today.

Why were the first jigsaw puzzles invented?

The origins of the jigsaw puzzle can be traced back to the 18th century.

European mapmakers mounted their maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces to create educational tools for teaching geography. These were used to familiarise children with the world's geography in a fun and interactive way.

jigsaw puzzle showing a detailed map of the Netherlands.
jigsaw puzzle pieces in a brown wooden box.

London cartographer John Spilsbury is often credited with making the first commercial jigsaw puzzle. In the 1760s, he sold puzzles with world maps cut into wooden pieces along country boundaries. At the time, these were known as 'dissected maps'.

map of Europe in the 18th century, divided into jigsaw puzzle pieces, wiht some pieces missing.

How did jigsaw puzzles develop?

Over time, jigsaw puzzles expanded from featuring maps to including paintings, scenes from the Bible, landscapes and various other scenes.

a map in a wooden frame divided into jigsaw pieces, with two pieces lying beside the wooden frame.
colourful jigsaw puzzle showing a map of Europe.

Initially, as they were crafted by hand in wood, they were considered to be both luxury and educational items. Puzzles on cardboard first appeared in the early 1800s but were not popular initially, as both producers and customers perceived them as being of lower quality.

a box of a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle showing houses with wooden frames on their walls.

During the 19th century, industrial advancements led to jigsaw puzzles becoming more mass produced.

The jigsaw - a vertical saw moving up and down and capable of cutting out intricate shapes - was invented in 1855. It was also known as a fretsaw or scrollsaw.

It's hard to say exactly when but around 1880, the name 'jigsaw' began being associated with the puzzle, named after this tool for cutting the shapes. The term 'jigsaw puzzle' is generally believed to date to the early 1900s.

beige box with a label with text, the largest word says 'Puzzle'.
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By the beginning of the 20th century, jigsaw puzzles were being produced both on wood and on cardboard.

colourful box full of jigsaw pieces.

Over the next few decades, cardboard became the major material for jigsaw puzzles, making them more popular and accessible. Jigsaw puzzles also developed new features such as more intricate interlocking pieces.

jigsaw puzzle showing the 1924 Olympics poster, an athlete throwing a javelin in front of a globe.

In the 1880s, two companies were founded which would become the market leaders in jigsaw puzzles.

The American company Parker Brothers - who gave the world the game Monopoly - was founded in Massachusetts in 1883. They marketed their first jigsaw puzzle in 1887.

German game company Ravensburger was also founded in 1883, but did not start to produce jigsaw puzzles until the 1960s. They are now the leading makers of jigsaw puzzles in Europe.

box of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with a photograph of houses on a meadow and mountains in the background.
box of a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle with an image of a bouquet of flowers in a vase.

By the 1930s, companies were using jigsaw puzzles as advertisements, giving them away to customers with products.

a jigsaw puzzle featuring an advert for soap with an image of a chimney sweep holding a brush and red bar of soap.

In particular, during the economic hardships in the 1930s, jigsaw puzzles surged in popularity as an affordable form of entertainment.

box of a 450 piece jigsaw puzzle with a photograph of red and yellow tulips in a garden.

Over the years since, jigsaw puzzles have remained a popular toy. In particular, during the Coronavirus pandemic, jigsaw puzzles became a perfect past-time while staying indoors.

Competitive puzzling

While most people play jigsaw puzzles to relax and be inspired by beautiful paintings, some take it more seriously and have made jigsaw puzzling into a competition.

Since 2019, the World Jigsaw Puzzles Championships have been held in Valladolid, Spain, with team and individual competitions.

The first championship had more than 1,000 competitors from 40 countries, all competing to complete a jigsaw puzzle in the fastest time. In 2023, the individual competition winner Alejandro Clemente León completed a 500 piece jigsaw in just under 38 minutes!

So, now you know about the history of jigsaw puzzles, how about playing some?

Explore more puzzles on Europeana