By Jeff Burns
Have you ever wondered about the history of jigsaw puzzles? Me neither until recently. A retired teacher who substitutes at my school recently stopped me in the hall and said, “I have a strange question. My husband collects Great Depression Era jigsaw puzzles and is looking to reduce the collection. We wondered if you would like some for your classroom?” She obviously knew who to ask. After all, I have written a Histocrat blog and presented professional learning sessions titled “History Teacher or Hoarder?”, and my classroom shelves are full of various objects collected over the years.
I said sure, and she started telling me the jigsaw story. While jigsaw puzzles were invented as educational tools in the mid-1700s, they reached new heights of popularity during the Great Depression. When the housing market collapsed, some enterprising entrepreneurs in the building supply company came up with the idea of printing images on their surplus board, cutting it, and selling it. For 25 or 50 cents, a family could enjoy hours and hours of entertainment to take their minds off of their economic hardships. The images were often escapist, beautiful – sometimes magical - scenes of cozy cottages or natural wonders that families wouldn’t necessarily see in their neighborhoods, allowing them to see the world. Some of the pictures are very patriotic, pieces of Americana. Many of the boxes provide no picture at all, just a one-word description like “home”, meaning you didn’t know what it was going to be until you were done. Puzzles also were given away as advertising premiums.
To make a long story short, she delivered several dozen puzzles to my room a few days later. My plan is to use some with small groups as we discuss the Depression. Students can think about and discuss the imagery: why was this image chosen? How did it reflect the Great Depression? Why did it appeal to the customer who bought it originally? What was the role of the jigsaw puzzle in family life during the Depression? Compare and contrast to family entertainment in other eras and today?
Want to read more? Here’s a great introduction to the history of Jigsaws.