The earliest surviving jigsaw, produced in London in 1766, was a hand-made, dissected map of Europe which was designed as an educational tool, rather than a toy.
The fine design and illustrations of old jigsaw's make them
wonderful things to pore over, whether or not you are a born puzzle-solver.
The first jigsaws were known as 'dissected puzzles'. The term 'jigsaw' was not used until the 20th century. It refers to the mechanical fretsaw used to cut the puzzle. Before its invention in about 1870 puzzles had to be cut by hand.
Because of this, antique puzzles have quite large pieces, and it was not possible to cut the highly interlocking pieces which characterize the modern jigsaw puzzle.
Early jigsaws from the 18th century were devised as teaching aids for the children of well-to-do families, and therefore featured
A London map-maker and engraver named John
Spilsbury is credited with being the first person to create dissected puzzles designed for children. A London street directory of 1763 describes him as a 'Map Dissector in Wood, in order to facilitate the Teaching of Geography'. One of his first puzzles was called Europe divided into its Kingdoms. The pieces were cut along the borders of the countries, so that children would soon learn to identify them by their shapes.
Other map puzzles followed: England and Wales divided into their Counties (1767) and The World (1772), and this novel idea for the education of children began to catch on. About half the 18th-century puzzles were maps but other subjects were soon introduced.
In 1787, William Darton published Engravings for Teaching the Elements of English History and Chronology after the Manner of Dissected Maps for Teaching Geography, and John Wallis produced Chronological Tables of English History for the Instruction of Youth in 1799.
Other subjects included Bible stories, multiplication and arithmetical tables, letters of the alphabet, and moral instruction such as
'Pilgrim's Progress' and 'A Map of the Various Paths of Life' which appeared in 1794.
By the mid-19th century, only a fifth of dissected puzzles were maps. New subjects included natural history, such as Wallis's 'Various birds neatly dissected', produced in 1835; farming; trade and industry, with puzzles depicting such subjects as the making of coffee, tea, sugar and cheese; and science with, for example, Sallis's 1855 puzzle 'Why, what and because'; or 'the road to the temple of knowledge'.
As people realized that children learn best from the things which interest them, jigsaws reflected new educational methods. Biblical tales were colourfully illustrated, as in The Proverbs of Solomon (1845), and geographical facts were pictorially presented, as in the puzzle Pictures of the Chinese (1840).
Antique jigsaw' can be bought through specialist dealers,
who are often enthusiasts and collectors themselves, and may also turn up in antiques shops or at auctions of antique toys.
If you are offered a puzzle which purports to be from the 18th or 19th century, you should check it out by consulting one of the modern published lists of antique puzzles. New puzzles, however, do turn up from time to time and they will not, of course, appear on these lists.
Certain features may help you to authenticate a puzzle. Most early puzzles, for instance, consisted of a printed engraving or map, glued to a wooden baking about
3mm / 1/8 inch thick. In the 18th century, mahogany or cedar was used, but in the 19th century puzzles were usually mounted on cheaper softwood, backed with strong paper to make cutting easier.
Older puzzles were hand-cut in much larger pieces than modern jigsaws, and only the pieces around the outer edge of the picture interlock. The cutaway hole must be placed over the 'tongue-piece' as the cut was made at an angle. The rest of the pieces are cut with wavy rather than straight lines and simply
abut each other. Early dissected maps were cut along county or country boundaries.
Puzzles produced in Germany and Austria were cut differently. Because the pictures were mounted on much thinner board backed with paper, they could be cut in much smaller pieces with an all-over wavy-line effect. The pieces interlocked throughout.
The main English puzzle makers worked in London, often starting out as engravers, mapmakers, or printers of books and children's games.
The following are some of the most notable:
• John Spusbury produced the earliest known puzzle in 1766.
• William Darton (later Darton & Harvey, then Darton & Clark) produced puzzles, including many maps, from 1786 through to the
• John Wallis worked from 1775 to the mid-19th century.
• John Betts was a prolific publisher of educational puzzles around the middle of the 19th century.
• William Peacock was the most prolific publisher of map puzzles (sometimes with a picture on the reverse side) in the second half of
the 19th century.
• J R & J W Barfoot produced a variety of puzzles in the mid-19th century. Their puzzles can be recognized from the 'signature' of roses
somewhere on the picture, and the very acute-angled interlocking pieces around the puzzle's edge.
• Pictures were invariably hand coloured until the 1890s.
• The earliest jigsaws were sold in well-made oak boxes with sliding lids. By 1800 the best boxes were of mahogany or cedar, but by
1820 all boxes were made of cheaper chip.
• The earliest boxes had a simple printed or engraved label, giving the title of the puzzle and sometimes the maker After 1820 the
labels became more attractive, with pictorial representations of the puzzle inside and sometimes a copy of the puzzle picture itself.
• A folded, coloured key-picture was commonly included inside the box. Because colouring was done by hand as a cottage industry, the colours of the puzzle and the key-picture often differ.