Piecing together the history of jigsaw puzzles

Piecing together the history of jigsaw puzzles
Piecing together the history of jigsaw puzzle... 04:14

Last year correspondent Mo Rocca purchased a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a 1933 Diego Rivera mural. He didn't expect to get to it until he was 80.

Well, things have changed.

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Mo Rocca working on his Diego Rivera masterpiece. CBS News

And he is not the only one. All across the country, people are pulling out their puzzles to pass the time.

The very first jigsaw puzzle is said to have been made by London mapmaker John Spilsbury in the 1760s. "He pasted a map onto a thin piece of wood, and he used a scroll saw to cut it up; England would be one piece, Germany would be another piece," said Anne Williams, a jigsaw puzzle historian and author of "The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History."

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John Spilsbury's European map jigsaw puzzle.   CBS News

"He marketed these to the very affluent and influential people as a tool to teach their children geography."

"Anne, I gotta say, a jigsaw puzzle's a great way to learn geography," said Rocca.

"Absolutely," she replied. "I think just about everybody spent some time in their childhood putting a map of the United States together."

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A Playskool jigsaw puzzle map of the United States. CBS News

Soon, puzzles expanded their reach beyond learning, with puzzles depicting nursery rhymes and fairytale subjects, ships and trains.

Early in the twentieth century, gaming company Parker Brothers came up with the idea of interlocking pieces – each one cut by hand – mostly, says Williams, by women. "Parker Brothers claimed that it hired women because they already knew how to sew," Williams said. "A treadle sewing machine looked very much like a treadle scroll saw. So, they were easy to train. They didn't mention that they could pay the women a lot less!"

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A ship puzzle.  CBS News

It was during the Great Depression that the popularity of jigsaw puzzles exploded. According to Williams, "30 million households in the United States were absorbing 10 million jigsaw puzzles every week."

Puzzles were entertainment – and employment. "There were so many people out of work," said Williams, "you could buy a scroll saw, a jig saw, for $20. So, they set up the saw in their kitchen or their basement, started making jigsaw puzzles and selling them to their neighbors or renting them out through the local drug store."

Rose and Mark Stevens, of Piece Time Puzzles in Northwood, New Hampshire, have been making and selling puzzles for 25 years. In their time they've cut thousands of puzzles.

In terms of the popularity of categories of puzzles, Rose said, "We go through spells. Sometimes it's butterflies."

"Frogs were in for several years; couldn't get enough puzzles of frogs," said Mark. "Lighthouses were – people collect lighthouses, you know? That was a big thing for a couple of years." Recent crazes, they said, include dogs and birds.

But the bulk of their business comes from personalized puzzles. Mark explained: "You upload your picture of your dog to the website. Rose gets it, blows it up and prints it out on the large-format printers. Then I mount it on cardboard and die cut it, package it, and then ship it."

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Creating a jigsaw puzzle at Piece Time Puzzles.  CBS News

They've been privy to moments both poignant … and puzzling. Mark said, "We had a wedding picture, and they wanted a person taken out of the picture. I thought that was cute. I didn't ask the story. I wanted to make up my own story on that one!"

"And did you do it?" asked Rocca.

"Yeah," Rose laughed. "He can be pretty creative."

Piece Time Puzzles is already seeing a surge in business in the current climate.

Rocca said, "I'm not being cute here, [but] it sounds like you guys are kind of in an essential business."

"It is for us!" Mark laughed.

And for puzzle fans: "Yeah, we get that all the time," said Rose. "They come in and they look all distraught: 'What's the matter?' 'I'm almost out of puzzles!'"

As for Mo, he'll be working on his Diego Rivera mural for a good long while.

     
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Story produced by Young Kim and Mary Lou Teel. Editor: James Taylor.