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Jul 30

A Puzzle Parley in Salem!

History

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Posted by Sally Placksin, guest blogger of Writer and Radio Producer

If you have fond memories of doing jigsaw puzzles on lazy summer vacations with the family, the 12th Puzzle Parley, taking place at Salem’s historic Hawthorne Hotel from August 1 – 3rd, may be the missing piece in your vacation plan!

While most of us have had our hands on a cardboard puzzle piece at one time or another, did you know that the earliest puzzles were made of wood and cut by hand?

Railroad Station - St Charles, MO by Keith Graves

Photo: Hand-cut Railroad Station puzzle by Keith Graves

In the late 18th Century, John Spilsbury, an enterprising English cartographer and engraver in London, was the first person to manufacture and commercially sell wooden jigsaw puzzles. Spilsbury took maps of the British counties, affixed them to wood, cut them along county lines, and sold them as “dissected maps” — educational tools to help students learn geography. They made their way to the United States, as adults realized how much fun puzzles were, and by 1907, the country was in the grip of a full-fledged jigsaw puzzle mania!

Salem played a special role in this early 20th Century puzzling frenzy. It was home to the famous Parker Brothers — that’s right, as in Monopoly. Long before Monopoly, Parker Brothers started a line of exquisite, hand-cut wooden puzzles known as Parker Pastime Puzzles and produced them until the 1950s. (With today’s resurgence of interest in wooden puzzles, Parker Pastimes are highly sought  — so if you think you have any tucked away in the attic, this is probably a good time to dig them out!)

Massachusetts has a venerable history when it comes to wooden jigsaw puzzles, and jigsaw puzzle lovers, craftspeople, and history buffs alike will find lots to enjoy at this lively gathering of puzzle cutters, collectors, and enthusiasts. Front and center, of course, are the beautiful, intricate puzzles today’s cutters are making, using tricky devices like drop-outs, irregular edges, and multiple levels.

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Photo: All Aboard from Bob Armstrong’s Parker Pastime Puzzle collection

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Photo: Savoring Paradise, art by Cynthia Fitting and cut by David Beffa-Negrini

“When I’m creating and designing a puzzle,” says Melinda Shebell, a cutter at Jardin Puzzles in Stowe, MA and a coordinator of the Puzzle Parley, “I really want to make it so that as the person does it, they discover something new, and if I am really successful, if they do it multiple times, they discover something new each time!” 

Melinda Shebell's "A Wreath of Music" can be assembled in two different ways by Melinda Shebell

Photo: A Wreath of Music by Melinda Shebell, which can be assembled in two ways

Shebell Second Way

Photo: A Wreath of Music by Melinda Shebell alternate assembly

On Friday, participants will honor the late puzzle cutter Pagey Elliot, who was one of the founders of the Puzzle Parley, along with collector/restorer/lecturer Bob Armstrong and jigsaw puzzle historian Anne Williams. For the Pagey Elliot Jigsaw Puzzle Exchange, each cutter makes 12 of the same puzzle — same image, same size, and same cutting style, although pieces do not have to be interchangeable among the 12 puzzles. The following five puzzles were all made for the 2012 Pagey Elliot Jigsaw Puzzle Exchange:

Black Cat Magic by Andrea Farnham

Photo: Black Cat Magic, designed and cut by Andrea Farnham

Creative Showcase

Photo: Creative Showcase, designed and cut by John Stokes

CT River Museum

Photo: Connecticut River Museum, art work by Leif Nilsson and cut by Mark Cappitella

Evergreen Pond

Photo: Evergreen Pond, art work by Blue Butterfield and cut by Kathleen Pigeon

Fox and Pheasants

Photo: Fox and Pheasants, art work by Dahlov Ipcar and cut by Anne Williams

The weekend features puzzle displays, cutting demonstrations, a Yankee/White Elephant Puzzle Swap, and a Banquet on Saturday night, which includes a keynote by Steve Richardson of Stave Puzzles, today’s premier wooden puzzle company. There’s also a trip to see the First Church of Salem and the Parker family stained-glass window, with its special emphasis on game symbolism. And, of course, this extravaganza is hands-on — with puzzle assembling till the wee hours of the morning for those who are up to the challenge. The Sunday afternoon Puzzle Fair is free and open to the public.

The Watchful Dragon by Shawn Ferguson

Photo: The Watchful Dragon by Sean Ferguson

The Puzzle Parley takes place every other year, so catch it while it’s here. Whether you’re a puzzle novice or a buff, come browse, buy, sell, or sit down and add a few pieces to an old wooden treasure! Chances are, you might just find that special birthday present or family vacation jigsaw puzzle you’ve been looking for.

Sally Placksin is an award-winning writer and public radio producer.  Her books include American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present and Mothering the New Mother: Women’s Feelings & Needs After Childbirth. Her public radio shows include programs for NPR’s Jazz Profiles, documentaries for Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, and What’s the Word?, a fourteen-year series on language and literature. Sally is a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast and aspiring puzzle cutter. She is looking forward to attending her third Puzzle Parley.

Photo at the top: It Takes a Village by Shawn Ferguson

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