Don’t Worry: Your New Jigsaw Puzzle Obsession is Perfectly Normal

 (Hans Peter Gauster/Unsplash)

A few years ago, one of my best friends and I attempted to do a 1,000-piece jigsaw together. I bought a puzzle version of Henri Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau from the SFMOMA store and the two of us began working on it during Nicole’s regular visits to my apartment. It was my first adult attempt at a jigsaw.

Henri Matisse, 'Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat),' 1905; a.k.a. the hardest puzzle in the world. (Courtesy SFMOMA)

What became apparent fairly quickly was that Nicole—a calm and gentle human—had the appropriate disposition for completing the Femme, while I—infuriatingly impatient—definitely did not. When Nicole came over, I didn’t want to sit and do a puzzle, I wanted to go to a bar, or a restaurant, or a movie. After investing about six hours in the jigsaw, and realizing it was going to take at least six more, I unceremoniously quit.

The Femme languished, half-finished, hidden under a table cloth on my dining table for the better part of a year, until Nicole finally gave up on me. When she arrived one day with a roll-up puzzle mat and whisked it away to finally complete the thing, I couldn’t have been happier to see the end of that project.

Fast forward to 2020, shelter-in-place day 60-something, and I have completed three 500-piece jigsaw puzzles in the last week. I finished three others in the month before that. And there are rules. If I start one on my own, my boyfriend is forbidden from helping me finish it. If we start one together, we generously take turns letting each other place the last piece.

Our obsession is now so full-blown, we braved a San Leandro Walmart last Saturday night in the desperate hunt for a new jigsaw. We found the shelves so woefully empty it was as if we were in the toilet paper aisle. (I eventually managed to find one solitary jigsaw hiding among the board games; we snapped it up.)

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The next day, when we went to pick up a pizza from Pi Bar in the Mission, we found the owner gleefully doing a giant puzzle on the long table in the window. When I complimented her progress, she said, “A customer just came in here and said that separating up the pieces according to color was cheating!”

“No it isn’t!” I exclaimed, genuinely aghast.

“But looking at the picture is,” my boyfriend chimed in, complicating matters.

We’re not the only ones treating puzzles this seriously. Jigsaw mania is in full swing everywhere. In the first weeks of shelter-in-place, Google searches for puzzles shot up precipitously. Last month, Rohnert Park toy store Fundemonium (which offers curbside pick-up and delivery) reported its jigsaw sales had tripled, compared to the same period in 2019. Ravensburger, one of the world’s biggest puzzle manufacturers, backs up that trend, reporting a 370% jump in sales.

And this has all happened before.

Get your mind off things

By the end of the Great Depression, manufacturers were producing 10 million puzzles a week (a WEEK!), many of which were rented out for a nickel a night from small lending libraries. Amateur puzzle makers proliferated to fill the demand and unemployed skilled workers began hand cutting wooden puzzles in their attics and garages.

That DIY spirit followed an earlier jigsaw craze kickstarted by a Massachusetts woman (her name lost to history) who started cutting small-piece puzzles in 1907 out of magazine covers. (Before this, jigsaws were made of big pieces and seen as almost exclusively for children since their invention in 18th-century Europe.) The Massachusetts puzzle maker originally sold them to benefit a children’s hospital, but the trend proved so popular, it spread all the way to England by 1909. The popularity of puzzles got another boost during World War II, due to a shortage of accessible forms of entertainment.

So why the return to jigsaws in 2020? Why, during shelter in place, are so many of us acting as if all our electronics are broken?

During the financial crisis of 2008, board game sales increased by 6%, but that boost came mostly from the likes of Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Settlers of Catan—group activities. Though still good options for families sheltering in place together, smaller households, now isolated, simply don’t contain enough people to play these types of games in any satisfying way. There are no such restrictions with jigsaws.

Their appeal lies not just in providing a cheap, time-consuming source of entertainment, but in the sense of order they bring upon completion. As puzzle historian Anne Williams told CNBC last month, “It’s something you can control [and] it’s also a challenge over which you can prevail.”

In a pre-COVID-19 study by Ravensburger and the research firm Ipsos, 59% of people interviewed found puzzles relaxing, 57% said they were fun, 47% said they relieved stress, and 42% referred to them as a “brain boost.”

Personally, I find the exercise of sorting through pieces and constructing puzzles similar to meditation. Jigsaws require a singular focus that temporarily provides my brain with a reprieve from outside anxieties. What’s more, the image is completely irrelevant. After emerging from a couple of hours working on a puzzle, no matter what it is, I feel significantly more relaxed than when I started.

A weird snapshot of the puzzles I've been doing.
A weird snapshot of the puzzles I've been doing. (Rae Alexandra)

This weekend, plans are in place to retrieve my old nemesis, the Femme au Chapeau, from Nicole’s house. When it left, I swore I never wanted to see it again. But the prolonged distance from my beloved restaurants, bars and movie theaters has given me a brand-new focus that feels mentally beneficial. It has forced me to find joy in the slower, quieter things in life. And it has allowed me to discover patience I didn’t know I had.

In 2017, a jigsaw enthusiast named Angelica Pajkovic wrote about what she experienced while doing puzzles, for The Mindful Word. “My perception of time, along with my ability to think of anything but the task at hand, is completely lost,” she explained. “I’m living in the moment, and no external or internal factors can distract me.”

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Three years later, for better or worse, the world has slowed down enough to catch up with her.