This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 18, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
There’s something about a human being that likes to solve a mystery or a puzzle. Mystery novels and spy thrillers are probably the most widely read books in the country. As kids, my brother and I used to love to read the Hardy Boys series, as these teenage detectives solved mystery after mystery, so even as children we were turned on to mysteries. Coupled with that is the insatiable human demand for puzzles, — puzzles of all kinds, from crosswords to Sudoku, jig saw puzzles to electronic iPhone puzzles.
Most historians of trivia agree that the most popular of all the many different puzzles, worldwide, is the jig saw puzzle, which was invented in 1760, — I don’t know which was the most popular before the 18th Century. The largest jig saw puzzle available today was made by Ravenburger, with 40,320 pieces. The smallest jig saw puzzle, according to trivia experts, was created at Laser Zentrum Hannover, and is the size of a grain of sand (now I’d have to see that to believe it). My wife and I, being avid jig saw puzzle doers, prefer puzzles made by Ravenburger, though there are three or four other companies which make well-fitting puzzle pieces. Nothing is more annoying than trying to build a thousand-piece puzzle with the pieces constantly coming apart!
The good brands of jig saw puzzles, like Ravenburger, are quite expensive, but puzzle addicts solve that problem by buying used puzzles or exchanging them with friends who share the same passion for doing puzzles.
Nobody seems to know which puzzle is the second most popular puzzle in the world, and there are many, many different ones, including these: Rubik’s Cube and Soma Cube, Sudoku, Slitherlink, Kakuro, Number Link, Masyu, Shikaku, Scrabble, connect-the-dots, cryptic crosswords, get-through-the-maze, and many more. Educators tell us that they favor using puzzles with kids, because there are great benefits, — they help improve cognitive skills, promote problem-solving, foster fine motor development, and improve hand and eye coordination. Some people even believe that doing puzzles helps to prevent the onslaught of dementia.
Of those puzzles mentioned, the one I have always enjoyed as much as jig saw’s is the crossword puzzle. No doubt as a former English teacher, wordsmith, and dictionary nut, I would be attracted to a puzzle which calls for synonyms, though I may have caught the crossword bug from one of my aunts, who worked through an entire book of crossword puzzles each day. She had stacks and stacks of crossword puzzle books by her living room couch, and since she did them in pencil, would allow me to erase them and do them myself (this was subject to cheating because the answers were not always thoroughly erased).
Most of my life I was too busy working at some job or other to finish a whole book of puzzles a day, so my habit was to do the daily crossword in The Houston Post or (later) The Houston Chronicle after supper. As a school teacher, I never had time to do it before breakfast. My puzzle-doer aunt was a stay-at-home homemaker, who, I’m afraid did more crosswords than homemaking. Back in those days, people believed “a woman’s place was in the home,” – apparently, I guess, whether you baked, sewed, canned, cleaned house, or worked crossword puzzles, it mattered not as long as you stayed home. She did have a sharp mind and wrote a column for the local newspaper.
My mother, on the other hand, had no use for crossword puzzles, but enjoyed putting jig saw pieces together, thus kindling my interest in jig saw puzzle building.
Mama loved maps, globes, and geography, which is a bit odd since she was terrified of traveling anywhere outside of Lee County, Texas. No doubt her love of geography was her motivation for buying “geography puzzles” for my brother and me. My favorite puzzle as a child was a map of the United States, so, even before I went to school, I knew the names and locations of all the states (at that time) in the Union. We also had a World Map puzzle which was more difficult for us. When you haven’t gone anywhere outside of Lee County, it is difficult to envision the world and match the pieces.
My wife loves Sudoku and iPhone puzzles, but some of the most enjoyable days in the winter of our life are those days when we do a huge jig saw puzzle together.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor and is the author of It Must Be the Noodles.