When I was very young and had to stay home from school due to illness, I remember being not too unhappy because Mom would often present me with a new jigsaw puzzle. It was never expensive - usually just a small die-cut cardboard puzzle from the five-and-dime - but it served to temporarily take my mind off my affliction.
My sister and several of her coworkers take turns assembling a communal puzzle in their breakroom. This has led to my sister becoming an enthusiast partial to 500-piece puzzles from several local stores, and we never pass one without checking to see what new puzzles might be available.
John Spilsbury - engraver, map maker, and "former apprentice to the Royal Geographer" - is credited with creating the first commercial jigsaw puzzle in 1766 when he glued a map to a wood sheet and "dissected" the nations, hence the early designation of puzzles as "dissections" rather than jigsaws. Intended as a child's teaching aid, it was an immediate success, but it was not until the early 20th century that adults decided to go crazy over jigsaws. By 1909 demand for the puzzles was so great that Parker Bros. produced nothing but jigsaw puzzles in that year.
The onset of the Great Depression actually stimulated the popularity of jigsaws. The introduction of machines allowing the manufacture of mass quantities of inexpensive die-cut cardboard puzzles enabled many hard-pressed families to purchase a lot of enjoyment for very little. A "Jig of the Week" sold at newsstand for just 25 cents. Companies offered free advertising puzzles with purchase. And though traditional wood puzzles were too expensive for most, it is argued that, they, too, reached their zenith with companies like Par Puzzles that created customized jigsaws for the affluent.
The post-WWII period witnessed the decline and disappearance of many of the makers of wood puzzles as die-cuts dominated market share. Today, most wood jigsaws are made either by individual crafts persons or by small, specialized companies like Stave Puzzles that cater to individuals willing to pay for higher quality puzzles.
Yard and estate sales still remain some of the best venues for acquiring vintage and antique puzzles at reasonable prices. Early 20th century puzzles can often be recognized by the lack of any picture on the box to suggest what the finished puzzle would look like, and pieces did not interlock as they do with more contemporary jigsaws.
Prices online vary widely and are in constant flux, but generally depend upon rarity, completeness, and subject matter. Many antique puzzles sell for from $50 to $100+, while some especially desirable jigsaws can sell for several hundred to several thousand.
Have an antique puzzle with a missing piece? You can have a replacement piece made, or you can sell your puzzle to another collector for the pieces he might be missing from his!
Would you like to know more about jigsaw puzzles? Check out the resources listed below, and
British Jigsaw Puzzles of the 20th Century
The Jigsaw Puzzle : Piecing Together a History
(For signed copies, check out this website)
Master Pieces: The Art History of Jigsaw Puzzles
Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors - Link to website - Sponsors conventions; produces quarterly magazine. Scans of old puzzle company catalogs available online.
Bob Armstrong's Old Jigsaw Puzzles - Link to website - A "must" for collectors, this site features pics and information on over 700 puzzles, tips on cleaning, storage, and restoring, and much more!
The British Library: Jigsaw Puzzle, 1766 - Link to website - Has picture of rare John Spilsbury jigsaw.
History Detectives - Link to website - Fascinating investigation into an early 20th century jigsaw puzzle provides insight into the period.
History of Jigsaw Puzzles - Link to website - Great site offers illustrated descriptions of Tuco, Parker Bros., Par, and dozen of other companies' products.
Jigsaw Puzzles - A Brief History - Link to website - Illustrated history by Anne D. Williams.
Wooden Toys UK: "History of Jigsaw Puzzles" - Link to website - By D. J. McAdam. The British version of jigsaw history.