Puzzling Popularity

  • AllWays Traveller
  • |
  • May 01, 2020

by Karen Feld

The world is seeing a jigsaw Renaissance during pandemic stay-at-home orders. It’s a time to dream and piece together your next vacation.

Barbara Bush once told me that the pieces all came together during a vacation with husband President George Bush –the hand-cut pieces of her jigsaw puzzle, that is. The former First Lady had brought along the 500-piece one-of-a-kind mahogany puzzle–a picture of Manhattan’s skyline–on the couple’s 12 day Aegean cruise. “It drove us crazy,” she reported later. “We loved it.” A quilt design jigsaw was another of her favorites.

She isn’t the only one. From the basement of a log house in rural Maine with a view of the White Mountains the late Betsy Stuart, founder of ELMS puzzles pictured above, and a half-dozen local craftspeople turned out some 2,000 hand cut, one-of-a-kind wooden puzzles each year. Elms (now The Waterford Puzzle Company) puzzle clientele has included Ivana Trump, Queen Elizabeth, Oprah, Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, designer Oscar de la Renta and former President and First Lady Laura Bush, who told me, “It’s our way to relax.”

Prices range from $30 for a simple child’s puzzle to $3,500 and up for a complex, 2,000-piece, custom-ordered jigsaw. For puzzle enthusiasts, though, the cost is only the first challenge. ELMs puzzles soared in popularity because they don’t include a completed picture. These uniquely successful puzzles often duplicate pieces and avoid anything as simple as a straight edge. “Sometimes folks give up and ask for a picture or call for a clue,” she told me, “but most people work their way through it. That’s part of the fun.”

Puzzle cutters have discretion at the saws. “It’s never boring to think of something new, sneaky, devious and nasty,” says JoAnne Diller of Bridgton, ME. She and her fellow cutters created a fish-shaped puzzle made of fish-shaped pieces cut from mahogany backed quarter inch plywood as well as puzzles designed with pieces in the shape of words and initials. One customer even ordered a series of 30 erotic jigsaw puzzles, based on Japanese prints that featured “interlocking pieces in Kama Sutra-type positions,” she said.

Puzzling Popularity
Visionary ELMS Puzzle founder, the late Betsy Stuart

Rose Guay, Art Director at The Waterford Puzzle Company, has been using a scroll saw to design and cut artisan puzzles for almost three decades. She creates special pieces including names and dates and her symbol, a rose. She also creates collages of family photos and art borders for commissioned puzzles.

“Puzzle sales seem to be soaring,” Guay explains. “It’s a focused distraction and can provide closeness in a social distancing manner. It can be a relationship of words or a quiet speechless calm,” continues Guay. “Either way it provides a kinship and familiarity that fulfills the need for closeness or family. It’s a small sense of silent touching.”

The craft of hand cut puzzle-making can be traced back to the mid-18th century. It’s not surprising that during Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, many couples and families are retiring to their “puzzle table” each evening. After all, assembling a puzzle is “a relaxing process and a way to forget about things that are driving you crazy,” Betsy Stuart once told me. That’s why for many at least temporarily It takes the mind off the grim pandemic news.

For puzzle enthusiasts, though, the cost is only the first challenge. Waterford Puzzles are delivered in a plain green box. often with duplicate pieces and avoiding anything as simple as a straight edges or cuts along color lines. Sometimes folks give up and ask for a picture or call for a clue, but most people relish the challenge and work their way through it.

The puzzle pandemonium is worldwide. The last time they were so popular was during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. So if the pieces of our society don’t fit together as planned, puzzlers can escape by selecting a New Yorker Magazine cover, a Faberge egg, a French impressionist masterpiece or an armchair glimpse of your post-pandemic dream vacation destination.

To read the published article on, click here.

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