On jigsaw puzzles, building birds, and what those little pieces are called

David Templeton describes a holiday puzzle-building binge, a few facts about the history of jigsaw puzzles, and the joy of building birds (and finding severed heads on the streets of Shakespeare’s London).|

“I just built a bird!”

“Hey, I just built another bird!”

Between late Christmas morning, 2020, and the evening of January 4, 2021, a 10-day stretch during which a Christmas gift to my wife Susan — a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology — took roost on a large, low coffee table in our living room, I heard that phrase — “I just built a bird!” — approximately 50 times.

What can I say? Susan likes birds.

And she loves jigsaw puzzles.

Hey, I’m not complaining.

The joyous, triumphant, slightly-silly way Susan declared her small moments of victory made it clear she was having a very good time. Which, let’s face it, is the whole point of jigsaw puzzles. To have a good time. To step away from the world and create something beautiful out of a pile of broken bits and pieces. To move piece-by-piece toward what promises to reward us with a small but satisfying sense of success. To start and then complete something that — if not especially hard — at least requires a high degree of focus and determination, and is generally best enjoyed as a joint project.

And yes, though Susan built the majority of the birds in the puzzle, I certainly “helped,” and given that the whole world has begun to feel as if it’s teetering on the precipice of epic ruin and disaster, a bit of focused fun and friendly (though slightly competitive) puzzle-building turned out to be just the thing to offer us both some positive (even necessary) mental distraction.

Building birds, it seems, is pretty good therapy.

And yes, a good time too. What my grandmother might have called a “simple pleasure.” COVID quarantines have certainly increased the value of simple pleasures. In a article that ran last May in AARP Magazine, it was reported that in the first months of the pandemic, sales of jigsaw puzzle rose by 370% over the previous year. During a recent exploration of the puzzle tables at Copperfield’s Books, in Petaluma, bookseller Ross Lockhart confirmed that sales of jigsaw puzzles, especially so at the holidays, have been the strongest in years.

Our household certainly proves the point.

In fact, combined with another complex jigsaw puzzle our family tackled right around Thanksgiving — “The World of Shakespeare” — I believe that assisting Susan with the those back-to-back puzzles will long last as one of my all-time favorite jigsaw-building memories.

For the record, the bird puzzle in question — titled “Rainbow of Birds” —featured exactly 54 feathered critters of various species, each in its own cozy photographic cube. Together, they occupied a wide, 26-5/8 inches x 19-1/4 inches rectangle that was nine bird-boxes wide and six bird-boxes deep. A bit of quick math suggests that 54 birds constructed from 1,000 puzzle pieces means 18.5 puzzle pieces per bird.

This, I have to say, was not an easy puzzle.

That was a surprise, actually.

After the aforementioned Shakespeare-themed puzzle, I didn’t think any jigsaw product could prove as difficult, if not more so, than that one. Produced by Lawrence King Jr. Productions from the UK, "The World of Shakespeare“ is Adam Simpson’s vividly painted depiction of the Bard’s London, but with a fantastical twist. It combines delightfully historical details — The Globe Theater, pumpkin-pantsed gentlemen and gorgeously gowned ladies, the looming Tower of London, several heads on pikes, random piles of fresh-dropped horse poop — with colorful characters pulled from Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo shouts poetry up at Juliet. Toga-clad conspirators stab Caesar in a garden. Fairies cavort suggestively in a forest. Kate, in a small boat on the Thames, shrewishly debates a pompous Petruchio, also in a small boat on the Thames.

There is a lot going on in this puzzle.

“I found a severed head!” Susan would say, upon identifying a particularly elusive puzzle piece, countered by my similarly exultant exclamation, “I found Bottom’s donkey head!”

Turns out, I was wrong. The piece I’d found was only a run-of-the-mill horse’s head. Susan is the one who finally found the donkey head.

Have I mentioned that Susan is really good at jigsaw puzzles?

She really is.

Susan grew up with jigsaw puzzles, as a kind of holiday family ritual. When we were first married, we’d go to her mom’s house for Christmas, and sure enough, there would be a card table in the living room with a half-built jigsaw puzzle on it. It’s like in the old saying, “A family that builds jigsaw puzzles together probably all have a high I.Q.” Did I mention that my wife is smart? She’s very smart. She’s good at recognizing shapes and patterns. She’s one of the few people I know who, if you show them a picture of some movie star’s nose, can probably tell you you which celebrity it belongs to.

She recently retired from a career as a geologist. She’s currently pursuing a Master’s in Theology, working as a ministerial intern for the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula. But as she often says, she’ll always be a scientist. And the science of geology is all about recognizing shapes and patterns.

This was on clear display as we worked on those two puzzles.

“How did you ever find that donkey head?” I asked at one point. “I must have looked at that same piece 50 times and all I saw was a gray triangle. How did you find that?”

“What can I say?” she replied. “I’m a trained observer.”

In other words, she was born to be good at jigsaw puzzles.

Speaking of which, as Susan and I worked to complete the puzzle, we discovered we didn’t know exactly how to refer to the physical shape of the pieces we were sorting through. There has to be better terminology for the little knobby parts of a puzzle piece than “knobby parts.”

Jigsaw puzzles have been around, in one form or another, since the late 1700s, so those specific elements of a puzzle piece have to have names, right? Well, sure. But not at first.

It turns out, according to “Jigsaw Puzzles: An Illustrated History and Price Guide,” by Anne D. Williams, it was a London engraver and map-maker named John Spilsbury who is believed to have invented the first such puzzle, made out of wood, of course, since cardboard was not yet a thing. He dubbed the invention a “dissection.” It was a map of the world, with the different countries cut out along their borders, so initially, there were no “knobby parts.” But still, the thing Spilsbury had created was a big hit, embraced initially by the upper classes and royalty. For some time, “dissections” were a popular way of teaching geography. Over 100 years later, with the invention of fretsaws, the puzzles evolved into something closer to what we have today, complex images or photographs broken into bits that can be assembled. Though wooden jigsaw puzzles became popular during the great depression, as they were a fairly inexpensive form of family entertainment, cardboard puzzles gradually replaced them in popularity, probably around WWII.

And those little knobby parts? And the inverted holes they fit into? In reality, the manufacturers of jigsaw puzzles call them “tabs” and “blanks.” That is their official names.

There are a few alternatives, of course.

In addition to being called tabs, “tabs” are also sometimes unofficially referred to as knobs, bumps, loops, outies, keys, and of course, “male.” Blanks, on the other hand, are sometimes alternately referred to as pockets, sockets, slots, innies, locks, and “female.”

Had Susan and I known this over the holidays, we might have been able to communicate a bit more smoothly, saying things like, “Hey, I’m looking for a piece with three tabs and one blank and half of a yellow bird’s eyeball,” or “If you see a blue piece with black feathers that has no blanks and four tabs, let me know.”

It helps to know the names of things, right?

Speaking of which, that Cornell Lab ornithology puzzle came with a handy insert identifying the species of the birds on display. Once completed, we went over the puzzle with the insert, putting names to the 51 birds Susan primarily built — and the three that I somehow managed to complete more-or-less by myself.

Our favorites? The Magnificent Frigate Bird (Frigata magnificens), the Purple-Throated Mountain Gem (Lampornis calolaemus) and the Purple Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus).

Susan, minister-in-training that she is, concluded our days-long puzzle-building spree with a truly generous pronouncement, her trained observational eye recognizing that jigsaw puzzles, after all, are a group endeavor, best enjoyed in the company of those we love.

“Look at that,” she said, beaming happily. “We built birds!”

(Culture Junkie runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. You can reach David at david.templeton@argus-courier.com)

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