You may not be aware of this, but this is a very big week in the life of United States puzzlers, because this coming Sunday, January 29th is National Puzzle Day, which has been going strong since 2002. I know that if you are not a puzzle enthusiast, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I mean, come on, it’s January, and I’m betting we all could use a little something to celebrate.
That’s a pretty safe bet, because just a brief internet search has informed me that there are more than six hundred specially designated days of observation that help us work our way piece by piece through this the bleakest of (northern hemisphere) months. Included on this truly inspiring list is Yodel at Your Neighbors Day, Gorilla Suit Day, National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, and Kiss a Shark Week. Really, National Puzzle Day seems like a relatively worthy one to acknowledge.
I don’t think I could ever be considered a puzzle enthusiast, but I do enjoy the occasional jigsaw, and I find that’s particularly true this time of year when the outside is not as friendly as I’d like. And whether you celebrate them or not, jigsaw puzzles have been around since about 1767.
That’s when an English mapmaker and engraver named John Spilsbury is credited with creating the first one. He called his puzzle a dissected map, because that’s just what it was. His intention was to use a pieced apart map with a wooden backing to help teach geography. The idea was well-received and Spilsbury soon found himself in the puzzle business.
Of course, today’s jigsaw puzzles come with all kinds of images, some of them maddeningly complex because there are evidently puzzlers who pretty much just hate themselves, I think. I recently saw an ad for one that consists of a thousand clear plastic pieces all roughly the same size and general shape. No thank you.
But I do appreciate a little bit of a challenge. My family has a tradition begun by my dad when he and my mom were first married. My mom likes a good puzzle and every year for Christmas, my dad gives her one without the box, which he only gives her after she’s completed the puzzle. He eventually started also doing that for those of his children whose eyes didn’t start to twitch at the thought. This year, with a little help picking it out, he gave me one that did turn out to be a map. Sort of.
I’m not sure that John Spilsbury would have approved of this particular puzzle. The image is in the shape of the United States, with faint lines that accurately divide the space into the appropriate fifty states. But within those basic shapes, it’s a pretty artistic interpretation of the states that doesn’t always make a lot of sense.
For example, Virginia includes a grizzly bear, Wisconsin features mountains, and Kentucky seems to be made entirely of desert. In case you are unfamiliar with the geography of the United States, none of that is correct. The puzzle is also a thousand small pieces of roughly the same shape and consists of large patches filled with nothing but subtly shaded pastels. It turned out to be a much more difficult puzzle than the person who chose it thought it would be.
I did finish it, though, because I don’t mind a little bit of a challenge, at least not too much, and I really wanted that box. Also, by the time I’d pulled a muscle in my back hunching over the maddening little pieces, there was no way I was giving up, even though it took me nearly two weeks and a lot of complaining.
Logically, the best way to celebrate National Puzzle Day is to put together a puzzle. Since it will still be January, there’s a good chance this Sunday will be cold and dreary and so it will probably be a good day for it. If you do, please put in a piece or two for me. I think I’ll skip it this year. My back still hurts from putting together the Great Kentucky Desert.