Jigsaw Puzzles: The 300-year-old Pastime that’s as Popular as Ever

Last year, when many of us were asked to work from home, to cancel or avoid traveling and to not gather in any kinds of groups, all due to the pandemic, there were a few industries that actually experienced a boom in business. Outdoor equipment sales soared, streaming devices flew off the shelves and the use of food delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub and Mealeo increased ten-fold, or more. Another product that saw a spike in business because of the pandemic? Puzzles.


With time on their hands, US consumers were looking for ways to pass the time. And what better way to kill an hour—or seven!—than with a giant, thousand-piece puzzle? One week in March 2020, Massachusetts-based puzzle maker Ceaco saw sales up 300 percent over the same week the previous year. One day that month the company sold more puzzles than it had in the entire month of December. And at Ravensburger, another puzzle maker, 2020 sales were up 70 percent over 2019.


While many people discovered a love for jigsaw puzzles during the pandemic, they’ve been around for hundreds of years. (Just take a walk down the halls of Kingsway’s independent living communities—you’ll see dozens of framed puzzles proud residents have completed over the years.) The first-ever jigsaw puzzle is thought to have been made in the 1760s by London mapmaker John Spilsbury. The puzzle itself was a map: Germany was one piece, England another. Spilsbury marketed his creation as a tool to teach children geography. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, though, that puzzles developed interlocking pieces. Shortly after that, the onset of the Great Depression caused the pastime to gain popularity, as people were at home out of work (sound familiar?). More recently, customizable puzzles, which allow customers to upload a photo of their own to be turned into a puzzle, have taken off.


Part of the reason puzzles are such a popular pastime during national crises is that they take your mind off of everything going on in the world. While you’re doing a puzzle, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to make your mortgage payment—you’re thinking about where in God’s name that tip of the lighthouse piece is. Puzzles are also popular among seniors for two reasons: Seniors tend to have more free time than those still in the workforce, and puzzles can help improve mental acuity. Though more research still needs to be done by scientists about whether doing puzzles could help prevent or delay dementia or Alzheimer’s, a number of studies have shown that there are indeed benefits to working your brain with a puzzle. So, what are you waiting for? Get puzzling!


Already a puzzle fan?  Check out some challenging ones that every Schenectady-proud person should own: historic Downtown Schenectady from The Schenectady Trading Company, or take a try at Jigidi's online puzzle of the Nott Memorial building at Union College.