Yours, Mine, Ours

February 26, 2009 to May 16, 2009
Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA

The Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA held an exhibit titled, “YOURS, MINE, OURS” for which the Museum invited members of the Worcester community who have interesting stories and collectibles, to submit the story and examples of their special items. 

I was asked to submit the story and puzzles of two individuals, still alive today, who cut jigsaw puzzles back in the 1930s/40s.  Three puzzles and notebook of Douglas Butler who as a 12 year old boy in 1932 cut and rented out puzzles to his neighbors, and one puzzle of Barrett Morgan who cut puzzles for his family and friends in the 1940s were on display.  These puzzles are part of a much larger collection of puzzles made in the greater Worcester area which have subsequently been donated to the Museum. 

Call 508-753-8278 for more information on Museum hours, etc.

Presentation at Worcester Historical Museum May 7, 2009

A. History of puzzles with examples

1. 1763: generally considered date first known jigsaw puzzle cut, in London, England, by John  Spilsbury, mapmaker.  Made from map of Europe as learning tool for children.  Next 100 years, puzzles were cut for children from maps, tables of kings of England and France, books of Bible, nursery stories, alphabet, etc.

2. Late 19th century: artwork became more appealing to adults celebrating achievements of America, but puzzles still cut simply.

3.  1908-9: society fad developed for adult cut puzzles made of solid wood, non-interlocking, small pieces, cut along color lines and devilishly difficult; mostly female cutters and customers

  • Best of the Season, Mary Underwood, Boston, MA, 1909c.  Puzzle led to our “15 minutes of fame” on the PBS show “History Detectives”, aired July 2003.  Question posed: is this illustration drawn in 1894 of women playing football before a crowd of people fact or fantasy?  Answer: fantasy!  Picture was centerfold of 1894 football issue of Truth, a risqué magazine designed to “titillate gentlemen” of that period!
  • A Future Cup Defender, Delft Puzzles, Clara Rawson, Providence, RI, 1909c.  Stunning artwork by unknown artist.
  • An Introduction, Isabel Ayer, Picture Puzzle Exchange, Boston, MA, 1909c.  Ms. Ayer cut puzzles and managed her own shop from 1908 to the early 1940s, also selling puzzle supplies to other female cutters.  One of my favorite makers.
  • A Spanish Girl, Holtzapffel & Co., Figure-It-Out Series, London, England 1909c.  Leading British puzzle maker of that time.  Amazing outline cutting.
  • The Nations at Peace, Emily Batterson, Hartford, CT, 1909c.  Pre-WW I puzzle depicting Servia as one of the leading “nations at peace”.
  • Theseus Slaying the Minotaur, Maids of Kent Puzzles, Helen Helmore & Vera Tassell, Canterbury England, 1920s.  Noted for their use of sophisticated cutting techniques.
  • Court Jester, unknown maker, 1909c.  Extremely unusual for 2 corners to be cut away; certainly fooled me!
  • Bedtime Pleasures, M.A. Bradford/Crafty Art, Boston, MA 1909c.  Most appealing scene by unknown artist.

4. 1930s: heyday of jigsaw puzzles in America; great depression put people out of work, looking to earn extra money by making, selling and  lending puzzles, or just looking for cheap entertainment: quality plywood readily available for intricate interlocking cutting style of this era; diecut cardboard puzzles very cheap and very popular.

  • Friendly Welcome, Joseph Straus, Sculptured, Brooklyn, NY, 1930s.  The Straus family was a prolific maker of low-end puzzles but also produced several unusual series including this 2-layered puzzle for a “sculptured” effect.
  • [Girl Painting], unknown maker, 1930s.  Many figure pieces appropriate for scene; border filled with child drawings similar to drawings of child in picture.  Most unusual.
  • Blowing Bubbles, Milton Bradley, Premier, Springfield, MA, 1930s.  Appealing scene by Frances Tipton Hunter whose illustrations often appeared in old puzzles.  Worcester never had a large puzzle maker such as Milton Bradley.
  • Breeze!, Carroll Towne/Caltown Puzzles, Auburndale, MA 1930s.  43 pc. Figure piece of sailing ship in sky most unusual.  Arched cat was maker’s “signature piece”.  One of original Armstrong family puzzles.
  • Checkers, Arteno Co, Boston, MA, 1930s.  One of original Armstrong family puzzles.  Probably, our all-time family favorite.  My first assignment as a small boy was to assemble the checkerboard while my mother and much older brothers assembled the rest of the puzzle!
  • Carnival Girl, H.A. Gleason/Cheerio Puzzles, Arlington, MA, 1930s.  Colorful close-up makes a great puzzle.
  • Little Bear Behind, Mary Belle & John Paul Jones/Falls Puzzle, Cleveland Heights, OH.  Family business making some of the world’s greatest puzzles with incredible figure pieces and very delicate cutting.
  • Knitting Lesson, Parker Brothers/Picture Puzzle Mart, Salem, MA, 1930s.  Cut by one of the greatest Parker Brothers cutter, Ava Gagon.  Note complex figure piece in upper right.

5. Pastime Puzzles: made by Parker Brothers, Salem, MA from 1908-1958;  generally considered best commercially cut puzzles; all female cutters; still popular today

  • Marguerite and Faust-Apparition, 1913.  Our proudest special collection is about 2-dozen opera puzzles.
  • David Copperfield Arrives in London, 1925.  Albert Ludovici, Jr. painted many coaching scenes based on the novels of Charles Dickens.  Parker Brothers in Salem, MA and Raphael Tuck & Sons in London, England each produced the same series of 16 Dickens coaching puzzles we collect.
  • Gloria, 1928.  My greatest restoration: 100 hours, 150 delaminated and broken pieces reconstructed and fitted, 40 knobs repaired, a true “labor of love”.  Cutting is incredible!
  • Where Dreams Are Made, 1930s.  Ideal scene for puzzle by artist, Victor Anderson.
  • Paradise of Peter Pan, 1940c.  Another spectacular scene, this one by artist, Edward Eggleston.
  • Old King Cole, 1942.  3 different panels together tell a nursery rhyme story.
  • Raising Old Glory to the Top, 1932.  Terrific scene, fun puzzle to work

6. Par Co: 2 partners in NYC produced best custom cut puzzles from 1932 to 1972

  • Be My Love, 1930s.  Includes “Puss”, presumably the affectionate nickname of the recipient of this romantic gift.
  • Caught, 1960s.  Highly personalized not only with cutouts along top & bottom but also stenciled reference to “The Valley Farm Road 1820” and the names of the Sears family with ages of their 3 children.
  • Special Delivery, 1950/60.  Colorful artwork by Curt Nystrom.
  • Stepping Out, 1960s.  Puzzle ordered for Ruth Hodgkins, Whitman Road, Worcester by her husband, Ted, who used to work with me at the old Paul Revere Insurance Co.  Terrific use of dropouts inside puzzle to form figures of marching band and Ruth’s initials.

B. Worcester puzzle makers

1. Like most cities and towns in America, Worcester had numerous small makers of hand cut jigsaw puzzles, but unlike Springfield, MA which had Milton Bradley Co., no large makers.  Their puzzles are quite traditional for both the 1909 and 1930s eras.  Perhaps the most significant maker was Charles Russell, 28 Coolidge Street, Auburn, MA who cut puzzles from the 1930s to the 1970s.  It was in the 1970s when we met Mr. Russell and commissioned him to cut over 40 puzzles for our family enjoyment.

  • The Frog Pond, Margaret Blair, W. Brookfield, MA, 1909c.
  • Norway, R. B. Vaughn, Worcester, MA, 1930s
  • The Magic Carpet, Vogue Puzzles & Mort. Printery, Worcester, MA, 1930s.  Puzzle used as promotion or award for The Whittal Corp, Worcester, MA
  • A Lady of Leisure, Raymond Bigelow, N. Grafton, MA, 1930s
  • Colored Sails (#443), Charles Russell, Auburn, MA, 1930s.  An example of Russell’s work from the 30s.

2. We know of two Worcester residents alive today who cut puzzles back in the 1930/40 era:

a. Douglas Butler cut puzzles as a 12 year-old boy in 1932 and rented/sold them to his neighbors in Westwood Hills.

b. Barrett Morgan cut puzzles as a boy in the early 1940s and gave them to family and friends.

  • Trout Stream in Winter (#20151), 1940s. 

3. Doug Butler is here today to share his experiences.  Very few puzzle makers from that era are still alive today, especially from the early 1930s when interest in jigsaw puzzles was at its peak.