Born 1936 in Springfield, MA, I was introduced early to two dozen old wood puzzles which my grandmother and mother had picked up in the mid and late 1930s when lending libraries for puzzles were closing (Westminster Lending Library, Providence, RI, Book-of-the-Day Libraries, Springfield, MA). My first encounter, however, was not positive: I managed to get a hold of and chew the Scotty dog figure piece in "Sun Worshippers"! I did improve enough to be entrusted the duty of assembling the sky pieces in "The Arrival" and distinctly remember my feeling of pride when I discovered there were two sections of sky and I had finished both! Many of these puzzles remain among the very best in our collection.
Upon finishing Amherst College, Harvard Law School and six months active duty in the US Army Reserve in 1962, I married Hildegard Nixdorf. We soon discovered our common love for jigsaw puzzles and I began to track down the old family puzzles remembered so fondly from childhood. Ultimately, I found them in my aunt's garage in Rehoboth, MA, scattered through several bureau drawers and around the nearby floor. After scouring the garage for every possible loose piece, we brought the entire mess back to Worcester, MA and spent the next several weeks reassembling the puzzles. To our great joy, the original puzzles I had remembered were all there, albeit with pieces missing! So many puzzle enthusiasts discover, too late, that their family puzzles were tossed or given away. Hildegard and I are extremely lucky and count our blessings.
Puzzles soon became an important family activity, especially on vacations. With three growing sons, however, we needed a greater variety of puzzles and found, first in the early 1970s Roland Chesley of Buckfield, ME, and then in the mid-1970s Charles Russell of Auburn, MA. We commissioned each maker to cut over 40 jigsaw puzzles for us which, along with the original two dozen Armstrong family puzzles, formed a nice collection of challenging and interesting puzzles. We also hosted every few years a jigsaw puzzle party where we invite our friends over after dinner to work and view puzzles, but also to socialize and talk if they prefer. We even added a jazz pianist to our last party billed as "Jigsaws & Jazz". The sound of live jazz, much of it from the last great era of puzzles (1930s), set a marvelous tone for the party.
Then, in 1989 at the age of 53, I realized that at my company where I was serving as in-house counsel, there simply were no senior management or professionals over the age of 60 and I would most likely be "retired" within 7 years. What was I going to do with the rest of my life? I thought it might be fun to cut puzzles, so one day while shopping at the local discount store (Spag's) I came across an 18" variable speed Delta scroll saw "on sale" for $525 and bought it on the spot. Once home with the saw, our youngest son, Conrad, immediately and enthusiastically embraced the project. After renovating the basement and setting up a proper workshop, Conrad and I began to learn to cut puzzles.
Conrad, a "natural" at crafts, quickly started cutting first class puzzles, while I labored to cut a decent puzzle. By that time, however, I had met Anne Williams, the leading historian, author, collector, lecturer on American jigsaw puzzles who suggested I take a look at the old ones. A few trips to Brimfield Flea Market started me collecting when I realized that almost all old puzzles had suffered varying degrees of damage over the years. With a workshop already set up and a son cutting better puzzles than I could cut the rest of my life, I began "fiddling" with restoring the old ones. It was then I discovered:
- I truly enjoyed bringing back to life a great old puzzle from the past
- Virtually no one else was interested in restoration, probably because it is extremely tedious work and simply doesn't "pay" in an economic sense.
On September 1, 1994, while leading a group of Appalachian Mountain Club Echo Lake Campers down the Beech Cliff Trail, Acadia National Park, Mt. Desert Island, ME, I inadvertently stepped off the trail and tumbled 70 feet down the steep shale slope. My rescue required 23 men and a fixed rope descent (straight down the mountain in a litter ignoring trails). The damage to my back and body was extensive, but I had miraculously survived the fall without ending up a paraplegic. This rather abrupt reminder of my mortality forced a reappraisal of my priorities in life, and when my employer made an across-the-board early retirement offer that winter, I accepted and on April 1, 1995 at the age of 58 started my "second career" as a collector/restorer of old wood jigsaw puzzles.
My "second career" resume now reads as follows:
- Collector: since 1962 but mainly in the last 25 years resulting in a collection of 1500 puzzles, mostly wood
- Restorer: since 1990 focusing on our own collection and puzzles acquired for exhibition and resale
- "To Russia With Puzzles", AGCA Game Times, August 1993
- "Jigsaw Puzzle Cutting Styles: A New Method of Classification", AGCA Game Researchers' Notes, Feb- Apr 1997
- "Earliest Use of Special Techniques for Making Adult Jigsaw Puzzles", AGPC Quarterly, March, June, Sept 2002
- "Arteno Jigsaw Puzzles: What Makes Them So Special", AGPC Quarterly, June 2006
- "Celebrating the Life of Charles Dickens in Puzzles", AGPC Quarterly, June, September 2011
- Co-organizer: 14 meetings for puzzle cutters and collectors, 9/94, 4/96, 10/97, 2/99, 11/00, 9/02, 9/04, 4/07, 11/08, 8/10, 7/12, 8/14, 8/16, 7/18 (11 were AGPI "Specialty" meetings)
- Advisor: Warman's Antiques & Collectibles, Schroeder's Collectible Toys, Maloney's Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory
- Officer and Board member: Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors (AGPC) 1996-2017
- Web site: www.oldpuzzles.com
- Pushkin, Russia 9/92 ("How to Cut Jigsaw Puzzles")
- Worcester Public Library 10/97 and WPI College Library 1/98 ("The World of Wood Puzzles: Beauty and Challenge")
- Worcester Public Library 1/99 ("Puzzles: By, For and About Women")
- Folger Shakespeare Library 2007 ("Titania" and "Planting the Evidence" were part of special exhibition titled "Shakespeare in American Life", celebrating 175th anniversary of the Library
- S. Windsor, CT Public Library ("The World of Wood Puzzles: Beauty and Challenge")
- WPI College Library Fall/Winter 2012, selected Dickens puzzles for display with their Dickens materials, plus selected "female pirate" and galleon ship puzzles for a genre display
- Briarwood Art Gallery, Worcester, MA 9-10/17 ("The Wonderful World of Wood Puzzles"). 60 of our best puzzles hung on walls like art work
- Briarwood, Craft Show 1/18 ("Two Crafts in Puzzle Display: Initial cutting; my restoration")
- Westboro Town Library 3/98 and AMC Echo Lake Camp, Mt Desert Is, ME 1990s; ("History of Puzzles")
- AGCA Annual Convention 9/96 ("Jigsaw Puzzle Cutting Styles")
- Wachusett Old Car Club 12/99 ("History of Puzzles")
- Wachusett Old Car Club 12/02 ("How Puzzles were Cut")
- Worcester Dickens Fellowship 2/99 ("Scenes from Charles Dickens' Novels in Puzzles")
- Worcester Torch Club 2/01 ("The World of Wood Puzzles: Serendipity in Retirement")
- Worcester Salvation Army "Young at Heart" Club 9/03 ("15 Minutes of Fame: Serendipity in Retirement")
- Worcester Torch Club 10/03 ("15 Minutes of Fame")
- Holden Women's Club 11/03 ("15 Minutes of Fame: Serendipity in Retirement")
- AGPC Convention 4/04 ("Special Puzzle Cutting Techniques and Puzzle Prices. How to Get Higher Prices on Ebay!")
- Worcester Historical Museum 5/09 ("The World of Wood Puzzles: Beauty and Challenge"). Featured both an exhibition and a presentation.
- AGPC Convention 8/10 ("Pictures in Puzzles")
- North Of Boston Dickens Fellowship 2/11 ("Parker Brothers, Dickens & Pastime Puzzles")
- Worcester, MA Dickens Fellowship 12/11 ("Dickens in Puzzles")
- Hall Club, Worcester, MA 1/12 ("Short History of Jigsaw Puzzles; Dickens in Puzzles")
- Briarwood, Worcester, MA 10/13 ("The World of Wood Puzzles: Serendipity in Retirement"). It was at this presentation, we learned of the availability of the only cottage at Briarwood with a basement; that led to our move to Briarwood after 46 years at our 1899 house.
- Briarwood, Worcester, MA 6/15 ("Briarwood Puzzles from First Half of 20th Century").
- Briarwood, Worcester, MA 1/17 ("Opera and Art in Jigsaw Puzzles"). Joint presentation with Bob Walters, local opera expert.
- Worcester Torch Club 5/18 ("Dickens in Puzzles")
- AGPI Convention 5/17 ("Charles Russell: Puzzle Cutter Extraordinaire"). Joint presentation with Anne Williams
- AGPI/Puzzle Parley 7/18 ("Dickens in Puzzles")
- Puzzle Parleys, Presenter on various topics involving cutting styles, restoration, history, artwork of jigsaw puzzles
- Seller: 130 restored puzzles each year to collectors/enthusiasts around the world
- TV Appearances:
- "History Detectives" PBS national TV July 2003 featuring "Best of the Season"
- "The Art of Living", Retirement Living Channel, December 2006
- WJAR Providence, RI September 2017. Short "filler" promoting my exhibition at Briarwood art Gallery
- Full of the Dickens: Recipient of incredible 3200 p. jigsaw puzzle at April 2007 Puzzle Parley, designed by Melinda Shebell and cut by 14 different makers from around the country.
- Recipient of the prestigious Spilsbury Award at the May 2013 AGPC convention for "ongoing, lifetime contributions to the development, preservation, and research of jigsaw puzzles."
I can now say, "I am having more fun than I ever had before in life". For this I have many people to thank, especially my family, Anne Williams and others in the jigsaw puzzle field. I also wish to acknowledge the extensive liberal arts education I received from Amherst College, which allowed me to change my career 35 years later from corporate attorney to collector/restorer of old wood jigsaw puzzles, this time, without missing a step!
Bob's wife of 57 years died November 13, 2019. Read her obituary...