Who Invented the Jigsaw Puzzle?

When I search the Internet, I find many webpages that unambiguously state that John Spilsbury invented the jigsaw puzzle. Some assign various dates (1763, 1767 are popular) while most aproximate 1760. With extended digging, I can also find claims for the Dutch, French and German origins of the invention. I once found a "... 1000 year old jade jigsaw puzzle ..." on eBay but was assured by a reputable expert that it was genuinely fake. Based on the number of jigsaw puzzle patents that have been issued to Chinese inventors, you may come to the conclusion that the jigsaw puzzle was invented in China in the last quarter of a century, apparently more than once. For the purposes of this document, I do not include "Picture Puzzles". One could certainly argue that mosaics from two millennia ago that were pieced together in the ancient city of Ur could qualify as a picture puzzle. I am sure there are instances where stone carvers worked in one location and then their work was moved and reassembled at another. The Lilly Library at Indiana University has twenty-four square pieces that form a picture (dated 1730-1741) which the library refers to as the first known jigsaw puzzle. My definition of jigsaw puzzle is a whole picture that is cut into irregularly shaped pieces with the intention that the pieces be reassembled. I don't include broken pottery, mosaics or tiles that are made separately and can be assembled to form a picture. The first jigsaw puzzles, known as "Dissected Maps", were hand-cut with fret saws and have irregularly shaped pieces. Virtually all1 of the oldest surviving puzzles are made of engraved maps (engraving is a common form of printing used prior to the invention of lithography).

Pick your favorite

Let's start with the Dutch, a very reasonable possibility. According to Betsy and Geert Bekkering2, two of the oldest surviving puzzles made in the Netherlands were made from maps that were printed in the early part of the 18th century. It is generally believed that, being an educational device, "dissections" were made with current maps.
As always, there are some exceptions to the rule. If the country's boundaries did not change, a older map would work just the same as a newly printed one. Paper and printing were both expensive so any existing stock would likely be used without regard to current borders. The Bekkerings note that the two dissected maps were not of professional quality and one includes a cutting style (interlocking) that was not seen elsewhere in England or on the continent until after 1770. Most likely, an amateur cut some maps from an out-of-date atlas in the late 18th or early 19th century.

I've come across a few different pages with some sort of official looking document that notes the invention of the jigsaw puzzle in France, circa 1830. Running it through an online language translator (French to English) does the usual hack job but seems sufficient to give me the gist of it. This document makes no mention at all of the existance of the puzzle manufacturers who were in business before then or of surviving puzzles that are dated prior to that. This includes 18th century French puzzles. There is a French connection (more about this later), but these particular claims have no merit.

The Germans were early manufacturers and exporters of puzzles but there is simply no evidence of them being first3. There are no known 18th century dissections extant and no records (tax, occupational, etc) of early involvement. The above mentioned picture puzzle at the Lilly Library was designed by Johann Claudius Sarron and engraved by Martin Engelbrecht of Augsburg, Germany. The caption (in German and Latin) reads: Whoever has never seen a picture puzzle can use this sheet as a modest example. Note: in my collection, some of my earliest examples of puzzles made in America were produced by Jacob Shaffer and Thomas Wagner. Both worked in Philadelphia and produced puzzles starting around 1860. Their style was identical to those being produced in Germany so I guess that they were immigrants or first generation offspring who received German made puzzles from their parents. (maybe from a favorite Aunt!)

Was it Spilsbury?

Linda Hannas, in her introduction to the catalog4 of puzzles displayed at the London Museum in 1968 states, "This evidence makes it reasonable to suppose that John Spilsbury, a cartographer and engraver, was the inventor of dissected maps and therefore of jigsaw puzzles."
The evidence she refers to comes from his entry in a 1763 street directory5 that lists him as:

  Spilsbury, John. Engraver and Map Dissector in
  Wood, in order to facilitate the Teaching of
  Geography. Russel-court, Drury-lane.
Also, at least five of his business cards have survived and, at the time she wrote, the oldest known surviving dissection had a Spilsbury cartouche dated 1767. A letter written by Spilsbury to Rev. James Granger6 in 1763 confirms completion and shipment of an order for a dissected map. Another letter, written by William Cowper7 points to the existance of dissected maps in 1762.

John Spilsbury was born in Worcester, England in 1739 and about 1753, was apprenticed to Thomas Jeffreys in London. Jeffreys was an engraver, map seller and Geographer to the King. Spilsbury worked for Jeffreys until about 1760, then went into business for himself. He passed away in 1771.

By the time Linda Hannas' first book, The English Jigsaw, was published in 1972, she had visited over 35 museums and had viewed close to 600 puzzles made prior to 1890 and she had concluded that John Spilsbury was the inventor of "Dissected Maps". To date, it seems that at the very least, John Spilsbury was the first to commercialize the jigsaw puzzle.

A False Claim.

About 1813, John Wallis added the following to the labels on his puzzles:

 J. Wallis the original Manufacturer of Dissected Maps
and Puzzles (having dedicated full 30 Years to that
particular line of business) requests the Public to 
              O B S V E R V E  
that all of his dissected Articles are superior both in
correctness & workmanship to any in London, & that none
are genuine but what are signed on the label  
This would mean that he started in 1783 and since there is much evidence to show that date was at least twenty years too late to support his claim, it seems improbable that he was the inventor.

Move her to the top of the list?

In June of 2000, Christie's auctioned (as a single item) two mahogany cabinets (an upper and lower) containing sixteen puzzles and two maps. The cabinets contained a very old note that stated that they once belong to Lady Charlotte Finch and that she was the inventor of dissected maps. (Lady Finch was the Royal Governess for the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte.) The cabinets were purchased for the Cotsen's Children Library in the U.S. but the Head of Map Collections, British Library was able to get a hold placed on the transfer based on the first and third Waverly Criterion. Eventually (in 2007), the money was raised to re-purchase the cabinets and they remain in England. While the outcome was still in limbo, Jill Shefrin was engaged to examine the cabinets and to verify the authenticity of the claims made in the note. Ms Shefrin had previously studied and researched the contents of another small cabinet of Spilsbury's puzzles8 that was also purchased by the Cotsen's Children Library. Her examination of this set of two cabinets and her research into the questions surrounding it led to Such Constant Affectionate Care9, a book that details Lady Charlotte Finch, the puzzles, and the education of the children of George III.

Referring to the handwritten note; Shefrin states in the preface to the book, "...I have rejected the first part of this provenance statement - that Lady Charlotte invented dissected maps...".

The French connection10

Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont was a French woman who worked in England between 1748 and 1762. Two letters written (1759, 1760) while Spilsbury was still an apprentice discuss the wooden maps of Madame de Beaumont. The first expresses a wish to acquire a set and the second expresses satisfaction with them. While both letters refer to wooden maps, neither expicitly describes them as "dissected". Madame de Beaumont ran a school, did private tutoring, and she was an editor. She published a revision of Beauty and the Beast in her Magasin des enfans (a two volume novel) in 1756 which is the version best known today. An advertisement for her classes includes a cost item for wooden maps. Other references to wooden maps make it probable that she was using and selling wooden maps in the 1750s, possibly as early as 1756. It seems certain that she was selling wooden maps prior to John Spilsbury starting his own business.

"As a professional educator with a profound commitment to teaching and a history of
creative teaching practices, Mme de Beaumont is also the most logical contender for the role 
of inventor of dissected maps"11


There are many threads that tie the pieces of this puzzle together. Queen Charlotte was an avid reader of books on the latest techniques of child education. Mme de Beaumont was a leading publisher and educator. Lady Charlotte Finch was the governess of the royal children and her family had ties to Mme de Beaumont. Eight of the the dissected maps in Lady Charlote's cabinets were from Jean Palairet's Atlas Methodique (1755). Mme de Beaumont had written recommendations for Palairet's maps to be used in education. Two of the dissected puzzles from the cabinets had John Spilsbury's cartouche. Thomas Jeffreys was the Royal Cartographer.
Perhaps Mme de Beaumont approached the Royal Cartographer with her new idea and he assigned the task to his young apprentice, John Spilsbury? When further requests came from Lady Charlotte, maybe the apprentice realized that he had the makings of a new business for himself?

What's in a name?

The transition from "Dissections" to "jigsaw puzzle" occurred slowly. The jigsaw came into being some time in the 19th century. As far as I have been able to ascertain, a jigsaw was a "powered fretsaw". In 1865 a patent was issued for the first treadle-operated fretsaw.12 At the end of the 19th century foot-powered saws were in widespread use. The terms scrollsaw and jigsaw were used interchangeably. The 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia showcased the latest inventions and designs from many countries and a very prominent display was of wood-working machinery in the Machinery Hall13.

 "First & Prybil, of New York, had on exhibit a very
 ingenious band-saw and jig-saw combined, which was
 claimed by the firm to be the first one ever made."
 "Among the several scroll saws exhibited in this
 department by the Combined Power Company, of New 
York, Greenwich Machine Works, New York and 
others, there was a very ingenious parlor scroll saw
...                                        ...It was
provided with a tilting table, enabling a new beginner
to do the finest inlaying without instructions.  With
this saw, horn, ivory, pearl, shell, gold, brass and any
kind of wood can be cut, up to one and a quarter inches
in thickness. These parlor scroll saws are very hand-
some ornaments to a room, and afford a fund of profita-
ble and instructive amusement to all ages."

I have not yet seen the word jigsaw on any puzzle made in the 19th century. The use of the word "dissected" in the title continued thru the late 1800s and on maps, even longer. Other names, used either to distinguish themselves or perhaps to avoid copyright issues, were used by the major manufacturers. In the U.S., companies like Selchow & Righter, Milton Bradley, McLoughlin Bros and Parker Bros produced puzzles that were sliced (all subjects), sectional (maps and animals), cut-up (animals), chopped-up (people), smashed-up (locomotives) and blown-up (steamboats). Block or cube puzzles were labeled as such. In the last couple of decades of the 1800s, the use of "dissected" was diminishing and most were labeled as "Picture Puzzle" or simply "Puzzle". McLouglin Bros produced many "Scroll Puzzles". In 1898 Rev. Charles P.B.Jefferys (of Philadelphia) cut some ~150 piece puzzles with a difficulty level that was clearly intended for adults.14 He remains the earliest known American producer of puzzles for adults. Geert Bekkering argues that F.P. Henke in Amsterdam was making puzzles for adults in the second half of the 19th century. Tom Tyler15 has a Barfoot16 puzzle in his collection which he dates to circa 1840 that was designed for adults. Eighteenth century map dissections were of a difficulty level that could indicate they were intended for a child to work under the supervision of an adult and the distinction between adult and child puzzles is blurred.
I have not found the word jigsaw in any Parker Bros. Pastime (a premium puzzle line) catalog. Anne Williams informs me that some makers were using "jigsaw" as early as 1908-09 and that Parker Brothers used the term in two brand names during World War I. A 1925 Parker catalog has strip-cut Jig-saw Picture Puzzles and the 1931 catalog still offers "dissected maps" however, the map puzzle boxes were usually labeled simply "Puzzle Map". Early 20th century Milton Bradley puzzles (and older catalogs of their products) do not contain the word jigsaw. Older Madmar Quality Co. (1920-196717) puzzles that I have don't show the word but newer ones (1930s) show "Fine Jig-sawed Puzzle". Victory (England) and Joseph Straus Co. (1933-1974)are two 1930s makers of wooden puzzles that were consistent at labeling their products as jigsaw puzzles. Although "jigsaw puzzle" entered the lexicon early in the 20th century, it came into common usage only around 1930 during the depression years when there was a nationwide craze for puzzles and anyone with a jigsaw could sell a homemade puzzle to earn a meal. Cardboard puzzles were mass-produced in the millions and their manufacturers adopted the name jigsaw puzzle.

A side note on saws:

To woodworkers, a jigsaw is distinguished from a scrollsaw by the armature. If the upper blade-holding arm is fixed (does not move), it is a jigsaw. If the upper and lower arms both move, it is a scrollsaw. The difference in the arms means that while a jigsaw's blade moves straight up and down, the scrollsaw's blade moves with a slight arc. The difference is important in only a few very precise applications and generally meaningless to jigsaw puzzle cutting. To a puzzle restorer, the difference can be important while making replacement pieces.
I found the following paragraphs on multiple websites with no references and I can not identify the author:

 The evolution of the scrollsaw is linked to the rise in popularity of frework -- the sawing of intricate shapes from wood.
Although there are examples of fretwork-like decorations on early Egyptian, Greek, and Roman furniture, these were probably 
carved or cut with a knife. It wasn't commonly practiced to saw delicate wooden shapes until the late 1500's, when a German 
craftsman (most likely a clock maker) devised a method for making fine, narrow blades.

 Soon thereafter, a Parisian began to develop specialized hand tools for cutting these intricate designs.  He designed a 
U-shaped fret saw which was originally known as a Buhl-saw (Buhl a corrupted pronunciation of the man's name) very similar 
to a coping saw. As Mr. Boulle's work gained notoriety, the craft was legitimized and quickly spread to Italy within a 
In 1957 Bosch™ developed a small handheld motorized cutting tool that is popularly known today as a jigsaw. Hand fretsaws are similar to coping saws and are still in use.

Not the last word

The history of the jigsaw puzzle is a work in progress that comprises the efforts of many researchers, private collectors and museums. An unequivocal answer to: "Who invented the jigsaw puzzle?", does not yet exist but Madame de Beaumont and John Spilsbury are two very strong contenders. While other possible origins do not appear as likely, some of them can not yet be dismissed. Tom Tyler says, " the inventor of the jigsaw puzzle was the first person to rip up a letter, toss it in a wastebasket, and then reassemble it after realizing it needed to be kept". My definition may be too rigid and perhaps credit should go to the first person who used tiles to form a picture. Linda Hannas (see my bookshelf) pioneered the effort to document the history, Anne Williams has covered the U.S. and the Bekkerings and Jill Shefrin have brought more early history to light. Far more information than what is presented here is available in the books by these authors and others. There was great change in the 18th century and a key aspect in the history of puzzles has to do with the desire to improve how children were treated and how they were educated.

Corrections, questions or comments can be mailed to me

  1. The exceptions are some coarsely cut pasteboard and mahogany maps with crude handwritten labels that were part of the Lady Charlotte Finch collection.
  2. Bekkering, Betsy and Geert.Stukje Voor Stukje (Piece by Piece), Amsterdam: Van Soeren and Co, 1988 pp.7-8 (pp.8-9 in the English translation)
  3. The earliest associated dates I could find in all of my references were from the early 19th century.
  4. The London Museum. Two Hundred Years of Jigsaw Puzzles, Portsmouth: Grosvenor Press, 1968. Intro by Linda Hannas. p.9
  5. Mortimer's Universal Director, 1763
  6. The London Museum. Two Hundred Years of Jigsaw Puzzles, Portsmouth: Grosvenor Press, 1968. Intro by Linda Hannas. p.9
  7. Hannas, Linda. The English Jigsaw Puzzle 1760 to 1890, London: Wayland Publishers, 1972. p.65
  8. Shefrin, Jill. Neatly Dissected for the Instruction of Young Ladies and Gentlemen IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF GEOGRAPHY, Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 1999
  9. Shefrin, Jill. Such Constant Affectionate Care Lady Charlotte Finch Royal Governess & The Children of George III, Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 2003
  10. All of the information in the following paragraph comes from the research done by Jill Shefrin and is contained in Such Constant Affectionate Care This is my attempt to put into my own words one possible origin of the jigsaw puzzle.
  11. Shefrin, Jill. Such Constant Affectionate Care Lady Charlotte Finch Royal Governess & The Children of George III, Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 2003. p.6
  12. Charles Reichman, Tools That Fueled the Fret Work Frenzy, The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association Volume 41 March 1988 p.1
  13. Ingram, J.S. The Centennial Expositon, DESCRIBED AND ILLUSTRATED, Philadelphia: Hubbard Bros. 1876,pp.268-270
  14. Williams, Anne D. The Jigsaw Puzzle Piecing Together a History, New York: Berkley Books, 2004, p.49
  15. Tom Tyler is the founder of the Benevolent Confraternity Of Dissectologists and author of British Jigsaw Puzzles of the 20th Century,1997
  16. James R. Barfoot and his son, James W. Barfoot produced puzzles from about 1840 to the late 1860s.
  17. Williams, Anne D. Index of Pre-1971 U.S. Jigsaw Puzzle Manufacturers Published by Anne Williams. 2008

Created on ... July 03, 2009