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

Dolls in Focus

In October 2017, I had the chance to be at The Strong National Museum of Play as a research fellow collecting data for my Dolls in Focus project aimed at revisiting and expanding the findings of my previous linguistic investigation on dolls’ language. Surprisingly, what I thought would primarily be an exploratory incursion into dolls’ universe from an academic perspective turned out to be a rather touching and personal experience that allowed me to revisit my own childhood memories.

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Sidewalk Surfing: The Gnarly History of Skateboarding Part II (1973 to 1991)

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Game Saves: Preserving the First LGBTQ Electronic Game

Floppy diskettes are an incredibly volatile medium. Available in multiple shapes, sizes, and formats, the magnetic disks were often used, rewritten, and eventually tossed aside as new methods of data storage arrived. Disks by their very nature are disposable, and younger generations may only recognize a floppy disk as a save icon. With some experts estimating the lifespan of a floppy disk at 10 to 20 years under the best conditions, many pieces of software, including games, are at risk.

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Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.

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Examining 21st Century STEM–related Toys and their Impact on Girls

If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

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Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia

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An Expansion Pack for A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

In our new book from the World Video Game Hall of Fame, A History of Video Games in 64 Objects, we faced a challenge. Which objects should we include? The Strong museum, home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, has hundreds of thousands of objects related to video games in its collections, and so we needed to include just the right mix of artifacts that were important, helped tell the broader history of video games, and would engage readers.

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The First Mobile Game Goes Viral: Pigs in Clover

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A Museum is Born

If you’re one of the more than half-million visitors to The Strong museum each year, you may have spotted the gallery wall about the life of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong en route to the admissions desk (and later, when you mosey back over to the food court). The museum in its current state grew out of the original collections of dolls, dollhouses, and other playthings amassed and cherished by Margaret Woodbury Strong during her lifetime.

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More Stories from the National Toy Hall of Fame

Get out your library cards and alert your book club! As far as we’re concerned, National Toy Hall of Fame season never ends, making it a fine time for another edition of Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love. Last year, I recommended books about 11 Toy Hall of Fame inductees and their inventors.

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