Before everyone stared at their phones or television all day, people read books and played board games, cards or other activities that occupied and expanded their minds in leisure time. And jigsaw puzzles were a notable preoccupation for people with a little time on their hands as well. Originally created in 1767 in England from maps glued to wood and then cut into pieces, jigsaw puzzles exploded in popularity about 110 years ago when Parker Brothers of Salem and later Beverly, Massachusetts created something close to the modern puzzles we do today.
Puzzles usually aren’t made of wood on a jigsaw anymore, though you can still find them that way. Today’s puzzles are cardboard with a printed picture broken into a thousand or more laser cut pieces. Puzzles aren’t something you do when you have a few minutes on a lunch break or while you’re on a plane traveling to a business meeting. Jigsaw puzzles are a time commitment and a zen-like exercise in focus. You can wile away hours on a puzzle, but it’s time well-spent. Building a puzzle takes your mind off everyday stressors, lowers your heart rate and sharpens your mind as you work to accomplish the specific task of finding that needle in a haystack.
Puzzles are best done in a group, making it a team-building exercise and social experience. To complete a puzzle is akin to finishing a great book – you feel the sense of accomplishment while mourning the end of the ride. During the Depression in the 1930’s puzzles became a very popular way to spend your time as it gave the participants a much needed sense of accomplishment in otherwise difficult times. I tend to do puzzles in one place only – on the coffee table on the Cape when I’m having some down time. It’s become a tradition to finish at least one puzzle during a vacation there, and hopefully a couple more than that.
While puzzles seem daunting and endless at the beginning when you’re forming the border, completing it accelerates as you get closer to the end, with fewer and fewer pieces to sift through to find the one you need. It’s an exciting time in the cycle of the jigsaw puzzle, and keeps you coming back for more, even as you stretch out the kinks from bending over a table for hours on end. The end of the puzzle is always on your mind, but you enjoy the ride while you’re on it.
The worst thing that can happen with a puzzle is that you get to the end and there’s one piece missing. That seems to happen more often than it should. The second worst thing that can happen is that you walk away from the puzzle and someone else finishes it while you’re gone. All that build-up without the finale. Which is another reason to keep pressing ahead with the puzzle, piece-by-piece to finish what you invested so much time in. And when you finally reach the last piece, there’s a celebration and sometimes a picture of the finished product. Depending on the affection developed for the puzzle over the time building it you may leave it assembled for a period of time, but inevitably the call of another puzzle overtakes you and your hours of work are swept off the table back into the box. Just a memory, but one you’ll think of fondly.