When Fanny Price first arrived at Mansfield Park, her cousins found her ignorant on many things. “Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together.” The girls were referring to dissected geography puzzles, now known as jigsaw puzzles, that had first made their appearance in Europe in the 18th century and were popularized and widely used in England and America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mansfield Park makes one of the earliest references to this educational way of teaching of geography. While Fanny Price’s cousins teased her for not being familiar with these expensive new schoolroom toys, the truth was that her Portsmouth parents could not afford them.
At the turn of the 18th century, British companies began to make toys that are still favorites today: toy soldiers, farmyards, wooden building blocks, steam engines, and kaleidoscopes. The toymaking industry began to boom, making mass-produced toys cheap enough to afford. By the start of the Regency Period, people had become accustomed to purchasing them and they became educational in nature as well, such as puzzles. Many sources claim that John Spilsbury, a teacher in England, created the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. He glued a map of England and Wales to a flat thin piece of mahogany board and used a fine saw (fretsaw) to cut along the borders of the counties, which made up the separate pieces. The “dissected map” became instantly successful.
While it is popularly thought that Spilsbury created the first dissected puzzle, the Dutch dissected puzzle in this image was made ca. 1750 (Cartographic dept. Univ. Library of Amsterdam), predating Spilsbury’s invention by seventeen years. If you will notice, only the borders of this early map of Europe interlock but not the central parts. ( Theo de Boer.) The Dutch puzzle might well be one of the earliest jigsaw puzzles made in the world, but there is evidence that several countries in Europe, including France, were teaching geography in this “entertaining manner.” As an interesting aside, so many new geographical features were discovered during this period of scientific discovery and exploration, that maps quickly became outmoded as new ones were drawn.
Before long, pictorial puzzles became popular, teaching such subjects as history, alphabets, botany, biblical scenes, and zoology. Soon the puzzles began to be made for their entertainment value as well. Click here to view two fine examples of early puzzles, including an alphabet puzzle.
Early puzzles did not come with an image that helped people to solve them, and a careless movement could ruin hours of painstaking work.The treadly saw, first used in 1880, could cut out more intricate shapes, and thus the jigsaw puzzle was born. The interlocking pieces held firmly together and the game took off in popularity. Paperboard began to replace wood and the pieces became more varied and intricate. The game was portable, became more affordable with the passing years, and could entertain families for hours at a time. By the early 19th century, America in particular experienced a puzzle craze that lasted for decades and still exists today.