Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

The Rolls-Royce of Jigsaw Puzzles

Par box top label.

Everybody recognizes a jigsaw puzzle. A national craze in the 1930s, puzzles continue to sell well today. But few of us know the pleasure of assembling an all-wood, hand-cut puzzle. These playthings for adults first appeared around 1910 in the United States. While basic puzzle construction was simple—glue a paper print to wood or cardboard and then cut it out with a saw—they were made purposefully difficult to assemble. At that time, no serious puzzle came with a picture of the assembled image—that was considered cheating. But just as Rolls-Royce cars are considered the best-built and the most expensive, one wood puzzle brand seriously challenged puzzlers and commanded the highest prices. That brand was Par jigsaw puzzles.

 

Who Made Par Puzzles?

Par jigsaw puzzle titled “Pilgrim’s Progress,” showing drop-out spaces forming an image of a bird at the top right.

Par was created by Francis Ware and John Henriques, business and life partners who began designing and cutting wood puzzles for fun during the early years of Great Depression, but soon discovered their friends and acquaintances would pay to rent or even purchase the finely crafted playthings. Some lucky advertising brought the pair new affluent clients who could afford the prices they had to charge. After that, a few ads in the New York Times followed by word-of-mouth promotion brought them all the clients and business they needed.

From the start, Ware and Henriques were determined to create the most challenging and highest quality puzzles—and they continued to refine their techniques. Amazingly, they did this while rival manufacturers, battling the Depression’s scarcities, sought ways to cut corners and cheapen their products. The two men disliked the kind of traditional tavern or landscape scenes that commonly appeared as puzzles. They purposefully chose modern art prints by artists such as Picasso and Matisse, and they particularly favored poster images for train and air travel, especially those of Pan American Airways. But Par puzzles are much, much more than just sawn-apart pictures.

 

 

Detail of Par puzzle showing owner’s initials in a drop-out, and a very irregular border.

What Made Them Special?

The earliest jigsaw puzzles were made on plain wood bases, which tended to warp over time or in harsh conditions. Plywood was readily available for artists and craftspeople by 1900. With several layers of wood glued at angles to each other, plywood is much less apt to warp, and is stronger overall. Most wood jigsaw puzzles, including the early Par works, were cut from three-ply plywood. Ever-improving on its products, Par’s later puzzles were typically cut from stronger, five-ply stock. The puzzles also featured many whimsies or figural-shaped pieces. These include Par’s “signature” piece—a seahorse—at least one of which is found in every puzzle. And Par would cut owner’s initials, at their request, into the middle or around the edge of the puzzle. Sometimes a lucky owner’s initials appeared in a “drop-out,” an open space inside the body of the puzzle. This device challenged the most serious puzzlers, who’d struggle to find an oddly shaped piece only to realize, finally, that the void was deliberate.

 

Par puzzle titled “Harlequinade,” about 1950. Par for the Puzzle!

Par mastered other cutting tricks to make assembly more difficult. Like other wooden puzzle makers, the firm utilized color-line cutting to foil a puzzler trying to find a piece that carried both earth and sky. Par purposefully cut corner pieces through the middle diagonally―to hide them—and created false corner pieces within the body of the puzzle. It cut puzzles with irregular edges on purpose. Sometimes one entire side was purposefully jagged or cut into a shape. And Par boxes always carried a printed “Par time,” (a term appropriated from the game of golf which also made a catchy business name) for how long it should take a puzzler to assemble the puzzle. Often both the puzzle title and the Par time would be purposefully deceptive. The title “Bobby’s Beat” represented a London street scene, while a Par time of “ask J M W” referred to the buyer, who may have asked that Par time be left off the box label because it caused such frustration. Few customers could match or beat the astoundingly short allotments.

 

 

Who Bought Them?

The loyal customer list for Par puzzles included presidential hopeful Wendell Wilkie and 34th president Dwight D. Eisenhower. And prominent families included Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, and du Ponts. Time magazine publisher Henry Luce and his wife Clare Booth Luce were both Par supporters and publicized the firm by word of mouth and in print. Edsel Ford ordered Pars for his yacht. Comedian Jimmy Durante was a puzzle fan, as were film stars Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, James Garner, Marilyn Monroe, and Gary Cooper, to name only a few. The Duke of Windsor insisted that each puzzle cut for him include “HRH” for “His Royal Highness,” the Windsor crest, and silhouettes of his four cairn terriers. Puzzles for the duchess carried the subtler “WW.”

In 2018 Daryl and John Lillie, puzzlers and puzzle collectors, gave a group of 42 exceptional and exceptionally challenging Par puzzles to The Strong National Museum of Play. The puzzles add to the museum’s vast jigsaw puzzle collection and help complete the stories of every type of jigsaw puzzle, from the common like the Volkswagen Beetle versions to the ultimate Rolls-Royce.

 

History of Par puzzles taken from The Jigsaw Puzzle-Piecing Together A History by Anne D. Williams

Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

Read more >

Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

Read more >

Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Read more >

What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

Read more >

Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

Read more >

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Read more >

Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

Read more >

The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

Read more >

Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

Read more >

The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

Read more >

Pages