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.
Play Stuff Blog
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 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.
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 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
The CHEGheads have found and acquired a rare and unique Nintendo World Championships 1990 gray cartridge!
Is there a box of chocolates in your Valentine’s Day plans? If you’re going to give (or are expecting to receive) candy as a token of love, you’re part of a romantic tradition that began more than a century ago. In the 1890s, candy makers finally glommed onto Valentine’s Day as an occasion to promote their products, even though they’d already managed to integrate confectionery into other holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Since that time, we’ve definitely taken their marketing message to heart. According to the U.S.
If one sign of a great game is staying power, then The Oregon Trail stands out for over forty years of enduring popularity. The game has also outlasted many different platforms.
What does Valentine’s Day make you think of? Boxes of chocolates? Bouquets of roses? Pledges of undying love? Sure, those are all part of the most romantic holiday on the calendar. On the other hand, from the 1840s into the early twentieth century, Valentine’s Day was also THE occasion to send insulting and downright nasty cards to your circle of acquaintances.
My fellow CHEGhead Marc Check began his last blog talking about some of the great Pac-Man artifacts in the NCHEG collection and how this character evokes in him a sense of early 80’s nostalgia. Like Marc, I too, caught Pac-Man Fever when it struck in epidemic proportion in 1981. My heart still holds a special place for Pac-Man and his family. Yes, family. Such a global phenomenon was bound to inspire spin-offs, and in this case it included a wife and children.
Strong National Museum of Play has many historical artifacts that help to tell the story of play in the wider context of American history. One of my favorite posters in the museum’s collection shows how baseball intersected with American history in the early twentieth century. Baseball was widely recognized as America’s national sport by the late 1800s, and it continued to grow in popularity in the early twentieth century. Two separate major leagues were in place in 1901, and by 1903 the World Series was established. Baseball was here to stay.
“You are a daring deep-sea diver holed up on Hardscrabble Island, a dying little seaport all but forgotten….” And so begins Infocom’s 1984 text-based adventure, Cutthroats, about a search for sunken treasure.
Sometimes powerful symbols sustain the longest lasting toys. Lincoln Logs, a favorite for nearly a century, is the best example.