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

Playing Pirate

It’s 9:43 a.m. on September 19, and you’re eyeing the morning’s deadlines when the usually reserved graphic artist pokes her head into your office and says, “Ye’ll have me that copy before the sun is over the yard-arm, or I’ll have ye walkin’ the plank, ye swab, ye scurvy son of a sea dog.” With a flourish, she whips an X-Acto  knife in her teeth. You notice that she’s wearing a tri-cornered felt hat with the Jolly Roger on the brim.

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An Ancient Game in a Digital Age

Recently for The Strong’s American Journal of Play, I reviewed Garry Fine’s new book on the sociology of chess, and I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the role of computers in chess.

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Playing Catch

Several years ago, friends came to visit and brought along their Australian shepherd/border collie mix and this black Ko

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A Shopping We Will Go…

Shopping. Chances are that word triggers a sensation of either joy or dread in your brain. Love it or loathe it, shopping plays a pretty hefty role in most of our lives, whether it’s a quick trip to the market for some essentials or a day-long event to find that one perfect item. Regardless of your shopping style—necessity or hobby—it’s hard to ignore that shopping represents a large part of our everyday culture, including how we play.

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My Year with Atari

Las

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What Do Pinball and Jiminy Cricket Have in Common?

Before I came to The Strong, my exposure to pinball had been limited to the Barbie Shakin’ Pinball handheld video game that I received for Christmas 1995. I have definitely come a long way in my pinball knowledge since then, from learning the proper terms for components I never knew existed (pop bumpers are my favorite) to discovering the game’s tumultuous and sometimes scandalous past (mob connections, anyone?). Once I saw the machines up close, I became fascinated with the several different types of artwork that appear on every pinball machine.

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Through the Artist’s Eyes

My love of movable books and of antique toys and games containing the richly colored chromolithographs of the last half of the 1800s brought me to The Strong’s Online Collections. I spent four days “oohing” and “ahhing” over the vast archive of images in the museum’s database before I discovered it was possible to view the actual objects by arranging an appointment or, better yet, applying for a fellowship for an in-depth immersion.

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Why ICHEG Collects Game Company Newsletters and Magazines

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Domestic Hobbies: The Connection between the Past and the Future

Knitting, quilting, and other domestic hobbies appear to have experienced a surge in popularity over the past two decades. Perhaps it is more accurate to state that they have experienced a surge in visibility thanks to social media and other online communities, as the qualities that attract people to domestic hobbies have remained constant for centuries.

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Domestic Hobbies: The Fight for Community in the Face of Isolation and Injustice

Domestic hobbies scratch the play itch—the need for creative expression and for losing yourself in the flow of an activity. In my previous blog, I addressed the therapeutic nature of crafting and the calm that it brings to its practitioners. Creative pursuits can also meet the need for community, for comfort and companionship for the individual and also for the comfort of the greater good, through social causes and charities.

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