Dissected maps and the invention of the jigsaw

Thanks to lockdown, sales of jigsaw puzzles grew nearly 40% in 2020, reaching £100 million for the first time. It’s a far cry from the puzzle’s humble origin in a printmakers shop just off Drury Lane.

The concept of children’s publishing was slowly emerging in the 18th century, with much of its focus on education and improvement. John Spilsbury, a young engraver and mapmaker, newly out of apprenticeship in the early 1760s, came up with the idea of mounting a map on a thin mahogany board and cutting it into pieces along county or other borders for children to reassemble. He called it a dissected map.

How successful he might have been, we don’t know. He died, aged 29 on 3 April, 1769. By the 1780s, printers had begun taking broadsheet engravings and ‘dissecting’ them: scenes from Cowper’s John Gilpin, then something of a craze, were particularly popular. Others were excited by the format’s educational possibilities: chronologies of English and Roman history were given the dissection treatment; Old Testament authors too.

After historical puzzles came moral ones: Dissected Emblems, Suitable for the Instruction of Youth of all Ages, Designed to Impress upon their Minds a Love to Virtue, and Hatred to Vice was the title of one 1789 offering. Another was the 1794 A Map of the Various Paths of Life, which, when complete, offered children a range of courses from Parental Care Hall at the top of the puzzle, to – if they made the right choices – Happy Old Age Hall at the bottom. Should they travel via Dalliance Bench in Off-Guard Parish or Misery Square and Remorse Hedge, or via the Public Spirit Highway to Devotion Grove? Luckily the game came with a thousand-word letter from a Quaker to help them choose.

The word ‘jigsaw’ doesn’t seem to have been applied to these puzzles until 1909, when the Daily Mirror called for ‘jigsaw geography puzzles’ to be introduced to every school in London.

As for Spilsbury, his name was quickly forgotten. By the 1810s a printmaker named John Wallis could loudly proclaim himself to be the puzzle’s inventor. His motive for doing so is another kind of puzzle entirely.

This piece first appeared in the April 2021 Months Past column in History Today.

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