Object lesson

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Unless you've got a penchant for parlour games or small children, you've probably not put together a jigsaw puzzle since you were a child yourself. But jigsaws weren't always just for rainy days and Sundays.

Seventy years ago, they were the rich person's play things. A 2,000-piece puzzle cost 42 shillings in the 1930s - about three times the average weekly wage. For those who could afford it, a jigsaw and a bit of jaw-jaw kept up spirits during the Depression years, when puzzle parties were a feature of high-society life. A place for every piece and every piece in its place, as they used to say.

Nowadays the Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists is keeper of the faith. Although it sounds like a secret society for biology teachers, the club for jigsaw enthusiasts takes its name from the first known example, produced by John Spilsbury in London in 1762, which he called a dissection.

Commissioned, so the story goes, by the governess of George III's children, Mr Spilsbury's mahogany-backed map of the world was supposed to be educational. But, because it was cut by hand with a fretsaw and it was all he could do to trace the boundaries of continents, as geography lessons go it was an easy one.

The classic jigsaw piece shape (known to cutters as a two male, two female interlock) emerged only at the turn of the century when jigsaws began to be made with the help of the tool of the same name, and cheaper, cardboard versions became popular.

But television became the dominant evening entertainment and jigsaws stayed in their boxes. And while children of all ages enjoy the satisfaction of putting pieces together and seeing the picture take shape, serious puzzlers frown upon too-easy jigsaws with the picture on the box.

They prefer to test their wits against hand-made wooden jigsaws featuring complicated "scroll" or "clover leaf" cuts and so called "whimsies" - pieces shaped like animals or objects, sometimes making a jigsaw within the jigsaw.

But no one, not even that well-known jigsaw fan the Queen, can escape the curse of jigsaw puzzlers everywhere - the missing piece. And why is it always the last piece that's missing? Very puzzling.

Harvey McGavin

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