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Putting it all together

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to do jigsaw puzzles—and those who like to give them to someone else.

Holidays wouldn’t be holidays without rituals, whether sacred or secular. In my house the secular rituals associated with December 25 include purchasing a particular brand of petit fours and three 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles—one high-end, two dime-store variety—for my younger daughter. Unlike the petit fours, a plaid bow for the dog, and English crackers (those foil-wrapped, snap-apart tubes that open to reveal plastic toys, corny jokes, and tissue-paper crowns), the puzzles outlast the day itself, enjoyed well into the New Year.

photo:  A jigsaw puzzle from the quads.
Dan Dry
A jigsaw puzzle from the quads.

Some people—my younger daughter and I, for example—like to do jigsaws. Other people—my older daughter and the dog—don’t. Anne D. Williams, AM’72, PhD’76, a Bates College economics professor and the leading American authority on jigsaws, has puzzled over their appeal for years. In her new book, The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History (Berkeley Books, 2004), she admits, “On the face of it, a jigsaw puzzle is a ridiculous exercise in wasted time. The manufacturer takes a perfectly good picture, glues it to a backing, chops it into small bits, and tosses them into a box. The puzzler then spends hours sorting and joining the pieces back together, risking backache and eyestrain. To compound the absurdity, the box top shows the picture. Assembly is totally unnecessary….”

Williams, whose own collection numbers some 8,000 puzzles, goes on to dissect the attraction. Along with visual and tactile rewards (she is particularly fond of wooden puzzles), there’s the mix of challenge and play: “Puzzlers are testing themselves, proving that they have the cleverness and persistence to find the solution.” If that sounds like what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, AB’60, PhD’64, has christened “flow”— losing one’s sense of time in the pleasure of a challenging pursuit—so does Williams’s next observation: “A jigsaw puzzle can produce total absorption, allowing the puzzler to shut out all distractions and worries.”

Doing puzzles, she notes, can be a solitary, social, or competitive affair: “Who is the fastest puzzler? Who gets the thrill of putting in the last piece? And who is the family tease, the one who pockets a piece and finally produces it triumphantly after a search of the floor on hands and knees proves fruitless?”

Last, but not least, in perilous times (puzzles reached the zenith of their U.S. popularity during the Great Depression), Williams points out that “[b]ringing order out of chaos is one of the great satisfactions of the puzzler. Unlike a real-world problem that may have no satisfactory answer, a jigsaw puzzle holds the promise of an attractive solution.”

The pieces fall into place
What do Singer sewing machines, Rusco brake linings, Hills Bros. coffee, and the Yells Funeral Home of Geneva, New York, have in common? As Anne Williams notes, they all used jigsaw puzzles as marketing tools. This year the University of Chicago Magazine has joined the crowd. We’ve commissioned a 1,000-piece puzzle of a Dan Dry convocation photograph and are offering it as a thank-you to readers who contribute $35 to help underwrite our annual production costs. We’ll happily accept larger gifts, of course; checks should be made payable to the University of Chicago Magazine, or you can donate online. If you’re not a puzzle person, you must know someone who is.—M.R.Y.


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