Pieces of Western Culture

Around 1766 a new form of fun began, so 2016 is as good a time as any to commemorate it.  While for centuries people with mathematical minds had been amusing themselves with chess and cards, 250 years ago people with more pictorial minds got their turn.  By 1766 John Spilsbury, a young printer and map maker in London, had invented “dissected maps, for teaching geography,” what we now call jigsaw puzzles.

According to Linda Hannas’ The English Jigsaw Puzzle (1972), the immediate antecedent was a game based on a map.  In 1759 John Jeffreys, a writing master and geographer in Chapel Street, Westminster, created a game on a piece of canvas in which the players, as travelers, moved around a map of Europe, each turn determined by throwing dice.  He called it A Journey through Europe, or The Play of Geography.  Modern English-language board games, such as Monopoly, trace their origins back to it.

Also in Westminster, in Charing Cross, was Thomas Jeffreys, possibly related to John Jeffreys, who was an engraver and cartographer.  He was also designated Geographer to the King.  Hannas speculated that Thomas Jeffreys may have doubted whether “the King’s geographer [ought] to turn his attention to adapting the serious trade of cartography to the entertainment of children,” but she noted that, whatever his misgivings, in 1770 he published a comparable game.

One of Thomas Jeffreys’s apprentices was John Spilsbury, having begun his apprenticeship at age fourteen.  The middle of three sons, he hailed from Worcester, where his parents, having buried their first spouses, had been married in the cathedral.  Again a widow, Spilsbury’s mother accompanied her teenage sons to London.  In 1760, at twenty-one, John Spilsbury completed his apprenticeship, and the following year he married Sarah May, originally from Newmarket, Suffolk.  By 1762 he had set up his own print and map shop in Covent Garden, in Russell Court, off Drury Lane.  An enterprising young man, Spilsbury also sold silk head scarves printed with road maps of England and Wales.

Hannas reproduced one of Spilsbury’s “trade cards,” part business card and part advertisement, and according to it, Spilsbury sold some thirty different “dissected maps.”  They included maps of Europe and various countries, from Scotland to Turkey, Portugal to Russia; maps of North America and South America; and maps of the ancient world.  Of points in the Western hemisphere, only Jamaica had its own dissected map.  Spilsbury mounted each map on thin mahogany and cut them into several dozen pieces, selling each dissected map in a square box.

Spilsbury made his name with his new invention, but he died young, on 3 April, 1769, not yet thirty.  Among the scarce documentation for his brief life are church records.  He and his wife, his brother and their mother, attended services at a local Moravian church, although only his brother joined.  Instead, John Spilsbury, transplanted Shropshire lad, died an Anglican and was buried from his parish church, Saint Mary-le-Strand.

What began as an educational tool for children became a diversion for adults as well.  By the early nineteenth century, printers had gone beyond dissected maps and had cut up mounted prints depicting historical persons, famous places, and scenes from literature.  Soon jigsaw puzzles featured prints of current events, such as the coronation of Queen Victoria.

Today’s jigsaw puzzles expand the range of images available and tend to come in 500 or 1000 pieces.  Jigsaw puzzles now reproduce works by famous artists, whether Michelangelo or John James Audubon, Claude Monet or Norman Rockwell.  In addition to the traditional square or rectangular shapes, there are round or triangular puzzles, as well as reversible puzzles and three-dimensional puzzles, often of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building.  A recent development in jigsaws has been as therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients; some companies design for them puzzles of twelve large pieces forming cheerful images, such as roses or kittens.

Of course, for some people, even jigsaw puzzles become a political statement.  Suns Out, founded in 1994, of Costa Mesa, California, on its web site prominently declares that its puzzles are “eco-friendly” and are “Never in Walmart.”  Other jigsaw puzzle companies draw less attention to their use of lead-free ink and recycled cardboard, and they cast a wider retailing net.  For example, one of the oldest surviving makers of jigsaws, Ravensburger, began in 1883 in Upper Swabia and now sells its puzzles anywhere in the world.

Two other puzzle companies deserve special mention.  Master Pieces (motto: “Having fun one piece at a time!”), founded in 1995 and based in Oro Valley, Arizona, produces the standard range of images but also markets jigsaws promoting seventeen entities, from Major League Baseball to Warner Brothers, Nestlé to the United States Army.  Cobble Hill, founded in 2005 and located in Victoria, British Columbia, offers jigsaws of paintings by an array of excellent contemporary artists, including Canadians Robert Bateman and Douglas Laird.

Unwittingly, a Thomistic philosopher has described the experience of losing oneself in a jigsaw.  For Josef Pieper, in Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952), leisure is not a break from work but “a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Along those lines, Margaret Drabble, in her meandering memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet (2009), described long hours doing jigsaws with her Aunt Phyllis.  “[W]e were never of the wilfully austere school that does not look at the picture on the box,” wrote Drabble.  “Looking at the picture was part of the pleasure.  Doing a jigsaw was not an intelligence test, or a personality assessment programme; it was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie.  And it was not, for us, a form of competition.”

Some competitive and calculating people, brooding over timed chess moves or shrewdly watching the croupier deal, might not understand folks who prefer quiet evenings at home assembling jigsaw puzzles.  Nevertheless, what began as a didactic instrument still teaches patience and perseverance, seeing a task through to the end.  Granted, that steady determination easily becomes stubborn obsession.  Despite frustration and the growing suspicion that, even with a new puzzle, pieces are missing, someone finishes a jigsaw with a sense of accomplishment, a brief triumph before taking it apart and putting the pieces back in the box.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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  1. A very nice history of the creation of the jigsaw puzzle and how they have woven their way into many lives