Why Do Jigsaw Puzzles Fascinate Cincinnati?

They’ve been the “craze and fad of the hour” three times in the past 100 years, including the current pandemic lockdown.

Jigsaw puzzles were as hard to find as toilet paper throughout 2020, as Americans looked for anything to entertain us during the pandemic’s lockdowns. Amy Pepe of the Geneva (New York) Historical Society says this current fascination is actually the third jigsaw puzzle craze, and Cincinnati shows the same pattern, with locals jumping on the puzzle bandwagon all three times.

The whole family, including the baby, the dog and the cat, took up jigsaw puzzles in 1909, according to this Cincinnati Post cartoon. Complicated puzzles that year usually contained fewer than 200 pieces.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Although games resembling jigsaw puzzles have been around since the mid-1700s, they were mostly considered educational toys and were limited to “dissected maps” aimed at teaching geography to schoolchildren. The idea of randomly chopping up lithographed artwork as an adult entertainment didn’t align with suitable technology until the early 20th century. Then America and Cincinnati got hooked. The Cincinnati Post [May 25, 1909] summed it up:

“That Jig-Saw game is perplexing enough to keep you up all night. Jig-Saw puzzles are the fad and the craze of the hour.”

The Post published its own rather primitive jigsaw puzzles throughout 1909, giving away 500 manufactured puzzles each week to readers who completed the printed puzzle, glued it to a card, and mailed it to the newspaper. While the newspaper’s contest puzzles rarely had more than 15 pieces, the manufactured prize puzzles they gave away included 110 pieces—truly beginner level for today’s puzzle mavens.

With the popularity of jigsaw puzzles as a pastime, their use as a metaphor came into vogue as well. Beginning in 1909, Cincinnati newspapers often used “jigsaw puzzle” as a descriptor for intractable problems in law, business, society, or sports, as an Enquirer cartoon [May 6, 1909] of Cincinnati Reds Manager Clark Griffith trying to assemble a lineup by solving a jigsaw puzzle attests.

Eventually, the initial wave (Pepe pegs it to 1907-1911) died out. A sure sign, according to The Enquirer [January 26, 1914] was Queen Mary’s ladies in waiting refusing to allow a jigsaw puzzle in their parlor at Windsor Castle.

“Lady Eva Dugale suggested that puzzle games were entirely out of date.”

Maybe so, but jigsaw puzzles came roaring back in 1932-33. The Post [May 30, 1932] pronounced them stylish this time around, and significantly more complicated than their 1909 ancestors:

“Jigsaw puzzles are keeping lots of fashionable folk home these nights. Some have as many as 1,000 pieces, altho 500 pieces make a puzzle hard enough for most people. They’re a fine idea for a party when some of the guests don’t play bridge. And they make splendid bridge prizes, too.”

The Enquirer in 1933 sold needlecraft patterns looking like completed jigsaw puzzles to be incorporated into trendy purses. Local high school students are reported crafting homemade jigsaw puzzles as Christmas presents.

When interest in jigsaw puzzles revived in 1933, it was mostly adults who caught the craze. Puzzles were bigger, more complicated and much more frustrating.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

According to The Enquirer [February 13, 1933], the revival took manufacturers by surprise. Orders for puzzles came pouring in. Companies that had long relegated jigsaw puzzles to the trash bin found themselves calling designers and stamping machine operators out of retirement and training new employees to use historic equipment. An Enquirer columnist [January 18, 1933] commented on an Associated Press item from Lockport, New York:

“Demand for jig-saw puzzles is keeping a local fiber board plant on a 24-hour basis, with steady employment for 60 persons. Sixty? Your grandmother! We personally know 100,000 persons who are employed on a 24-hour basis trying to put the things together.”

The Enquirer [March 7, 1933] made clear that, this time around, jigsaw puzzles were not toys:

“The future may be full of opportunity for youth, but just now the youngsters can’t get near the jigsaw puzzle for the grown-ups crowded around.”

Jigsaw puzzles even generated marital drama, according to The Post [February 6, 1933]:

“You can always tell the henpecked husband. He’s the one who’s given the blue sky pieces to work out in jigsaw puzzles.”

Eventually, the 1930s obsession with hundreds of little pieces faded, too. Joe Aston, The Post’s sports editor, was moved to ponder [June 9, 1939]:

“And what’s become of all the folk who used to sit up until midnight putting jigsaw puzzles together? … As if anyone cared.”

World War II led to an innovative use for jigsaw puzzles by a Cincinnati manufacturer. The U.S. Playing Card Company manufactured special card decks and sent them to American prisoners of war in Europe and Asia. When the prisoners peeled off the backs of the cards, they found sections of escape maps that could be assembled like jigsaw puzzles.

Which brings us to the current fad. While National Public Radio reported on the national thirst for jigsaw puzzles, The Enquirer [March 22, 2020] published its “Top 10 ways to practice social distancing.” Jigsaw puzzles were on the list, along with the tip that online communities of puzzle addicts were happy to swap their completed puzzles for yours—after they’d been appropriately disinfected.

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