We have been doing jigsaw puzzles, lately, here at home.
There’s something wonderfully satisfying about them. The pieces snap into place. They form patterns, scenes, recognizable shapes. They begin as a jumbled cacophony, and slowly—with patience—come together, recognizable at last. They are, I think while looking at a fragment of Eiffel Tower or a cat’s whisker or a piece of bookshelf, a metaphor. They are simultaneously old and new, and playful, and hopeful.
Additionally, they are games that connect: literally, as pieces meet, but also metaphorically, through networks stretching back to the past, contemporaneously across family and friends, and forward to the future.
The past is important for shaping the picture of the present. Jigsaw puzzles have a long and complex history, reaching from John Spilsbury’s cut-out educational maps of 1760 to the Wikipedia logo, from the Saw movie franchise to the massive jigsaw boom during the American Great Depression of the 1930s. As D.J. McAdam notes:
The appeal, then as now, was that one bought a good deal of entertainment for a small price. The weekly jigsaw puzzle could constitute a solitary or group activity, and would occupy one's time enjoyably for hours. And, of course, a jigsaw puzzle was “recyclable,” in that one could break the puzzle up once one had completed it and then pass it on to another family member or friend. Another point to bear in mind that jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts in the Depression discovered what many in our own time are rediscovering—that working on a jigsaw puzzle is a great way to reduce stress!
The jigsaw puzzle is a game played across centuries, a point of continuity and similarity, as my husband and I occupy ourselves in the same way those Depression-era weekly puzzle completers once did. We can feel with the past: the need for a distraction, the frustration of missing pieces or incomplete sections, the triumph of a small victory that brings order to a tiny piece of the world, a joy to be savored for a moment or two against a larger backdrop of fear and uncertainty.
These pieces connect us via more personal history, entwined with present-day networks of care. In a November 2020 NPR interview, Diane Skilling, president of the California-based puzzle company SunsOut, observes that “the puzzle people are still puzzle people, only now they have more time to do puzzles. And people who had not done puzzles since they were kids…were digging puzzles out of their grandma's attic to have something to do and were liking it.” For Skilling’s customers, puzzles allow an escape and an inheritance: people have more (enforced) time at home, and more time to do puzzles; people who have not previously done puzzles are connecting with grandparents and family. Puzzles are accessible—relatively inexpensive, with the method of gameplay easily learned—and they grow with us, as puzzles exist for multiple age ranges and at multiple difficulty levels. NPR notes that the demand for puzzles has skyrocketed, to the point at which manufacturers have had difficulty keeping up; sales by German game-and puzzle-maker Ravensburger, for example, increased 370%, while distributors ran low on stock, and shelves were bare. Puzzles, clearly, help meet the pressing need for essential diversion and intimacy amid a newly circumscribed and high-stress mode of daily life. As far as myself and my husband, we’ve bonded over hours spent assembling a collage of independent craft beer labels, working together (and banding together to keep the cat off the table); we’ve bought puzzles as gifts; we’ve learned that my grandmother also enjoys jigsaw puzzles, which I hadn’t known. We’ve done puzzle trades and swaps with friends: sharing the game and the small successes, reaffirming that we can still play together, in a sense. We can, and we will, continue to do so.
Finally, if puzzles help us play games as part of a community incorporating the past and the present, they can also help us envision a future. One puzzle we’ve done is a travel collage; as we worked, my husband and I pointed to various landmarks and said, “Remember being there? That was when…” and “Oh, we should go back there, maybe with my parents, they’d love it,” and “That’s still on the list, we’ll go there someday!” We made plans for the future, with hope, imagining. And, in that future, perhaps my nephew or your granddaughter might, like Diane Skilling’s customers, find a puzzle belonging to a relative and begin completing it for the first time—and discover the joy of perseverance. Photos of finished puzzles, shared via social media, will provide digital texts, maps, notes from the pandemic left for the future to read: here’s what we did, how we coped, how we shared moments of completion with each other. Puzzles traded with friends become new again, awaiting patient, determined assembly by a different set of hands.
We will complete the picture, the shape, the kitten asleep by a fire, the Disney villain portraits, the three-dimensional Earth puzzle that hearkens all the way back to Spilsbury’s cut-out maps. We will make something, and share it.
We will find ways for all our loose pieces to connect.