Oh, the enduring pleasure of finding the sum of a jigsaw puzzle's parts


November 28, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Most mornings at 4 a.m., Bernie Goodman sits hunched over his card table, concentrating on a jigsaw puzzle of a giant ice cream sundae, or a group of teddy bears, or "something else colorful." He says he's hooked on picture puzzles. And as he hasn't slept more than four hours a night for the last 50 years, he's managed to finish quite a few.

"Puzzles are a release for me," he says. "It's a hobby, a therapy, a challenge. Once I start something, I have to complete it. Puzzles are also beautiful things, and I get great pleasure out of just looking at them."

Mr. Goodman, 65, is among millions of Americans who are discovering -- or rediscovering -- the satisfaction of putting bits 00 and pieces together, of forging meaning from chaos, of tackling a problem which has only one solution.

Last year, cardboard jigsaw puzzles reached sales of $197 million in the United States -- a growth of 12 percent from 1990. Although many industry watchers give credit to the national trend of spending more time at home, they also say the puzzle terrain has become more alluring than the traditional Swiss chalets and covered bridges.

The Game Keeper in Towson Town Center, for instance, reveals many of the newest jigsaw puzzle trends on the market: Three-dimensional puzzles of Victorian mansions; puzzles within puzzles; mystery game puzzles; two-sided puzzles; "talking" jigsaw puzzles which are solved by following a printed conversation; and a Celestial Planosphere puzzle which glows in the dark, charts northern and southern skies and describes galaxies, black holes and supernovas.

Some companies manufacture puzzles which, when assembled, become functioning clocks and globes. Others offer personalized puzzles made from family photographs. And for people who can't bear to leave their puzzles behind, there are puzzle caddies designed to carry the unfinished game without disturbing any pieces.

"For many years, we only had scenic jigsaw puzzles," says puzzle manufacturer Don Scott Jr., whose company, Buffalo Games, manufactures the talking jigsaw puzzle. "The only way to make puzzles more challenging was to make them larger."

In 1965, however, Springbok Editions shook up the industry when it introduced "Convergence," a Jackson Pollock piece which turned out to be as confounding a puzzle as it was a painting. It also sold more than 1 million copies, making it the world's greatest-selling puzzle and bringing new attention to the activity.

Before "Convergence," jigsaw puzzles had enjoyed their greatest success during the Great Depression.

"A lot of people were unemployed so they had time to get into making puzzles and putting them together," says jigsaw puzzle historian and author Anne D. Williams. "Particularly then, when things were so bad, there must have been something very

satisfying about solving a puzzle."

In 1932, people started buying the "Jig of the Week," a 300-piece puzzle without a picture, for a quarter at newsstands. At the peak of the puzzle popularity, Ms. Williams says, consumers bought nearly 6 million puzzles each week. Many smaller manufacturers started puzzle lending libraries.

Despite the variety of puzzles on today's market, most people still prefer a jigsaw puzzle with a picture that's "framable," says Steve Dolberg, spokesman for the Great American Puzzle Factory company in South Norwalk, Conn.

He says many puzzle buyers tape or glue their finished puzzles so they can hang them on their walls; during the past decade, framed puzzles have become badges of achievement as well as inexpensive decorations.

Mr. Goodman, for instance, gives many framed puzzles to young couples he meets. Vegetable and fruit puzzles are good for kitchens, he explains, while teddy bears and dolls work nicely in children's bedrooms.

He also says he is very picky about his puzzles.

"I don't go for the scenery ones. I have very few with grass and trees and forests. I like something with a theme: Food, a big hamburger or dolls, anything that catches my eye. The ones I love best are for children: teddy bears, all kinds. But I wouldn't do a kitty-cat on a bet."

During all of his puzzle-solving years, the Pikesville resident remembers only one that got away.

"It was a psychedelic thing, if I remember correctly. I said to myself, 'Bernie, you're not going to the insane asylum over this.' "

For most puzzle buffs, a jigsaw is a pleasant form of solitaire. But they also praise the game's abilities to appeal to a group.

Ms. Williams recalls childhood Christmases when her family would spend several days putting together the brand new puzzle that Santa brought. Others credit puzzles with helping them through the cabin fever and inter-generational squabbles of rainy vacations.

As a collector with more than 3,000 puzzles, Ms. Williams particu

larly likes those puzzles which contain records of the people who solved them and the circumstances under which they worked.

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