Puzzling the Public
by Mary Beimfohr
from Profitable Hobbies, May 1950
Forced to retire, an Illinois man returns to an old hobby and begins making jigsaw puzzles that bring up to $35 each.
“You can no longer work regularly. lt is too great a strain."Words like these from a trusted physician have made many a man shudder and sent him off to dull inactive retirement.
When, on a warm day in July, 1948, William S. Lord heard this verdict on his too active life, he was completely undaunted, for he knew that no retirement from the business world could drain his joy from living. He had gone through World War Il working as a construction engineer, pushing himself to the limit in the rush of preparation for army housing. Later, his assignment was to dispose of the no longer needed material. So, by 1948, he had no feeling of an uncompleted job. He was satisfied to call it a day on big construction.
But he was far from being ready to lounge in the sun. He was still farther from lacking the ability to adjust himself to the enjoyment of his newly found leisure. He knew that happy living comes from a rewarding occupation. As he thought back over his casual interests, he remembered with sudden pleasure a short period when he had been fascinated by making jigsaw puzzles.
WILLIAM LORD uses an electric saw to put out one of the interlocking pieces that go to make up one of his popular jigsaw puzzles. After cutting, each piece is buffed lightly with a sander to make it perfectly smooth.
It had been back in the thirties when many people were experimenting to find a way to worry through the depression. The puzzle period hadn't lasted long for Lord, because more remunerative and important business soon demanded his attention. But now ...making those puzzles had been fun...his days were his own at last...this was the time for the fun of puzzle making again! So he set about this hobby which he had enjoyed so much before it had been crowded out of his activities.
As his electric saw wound its way around the silhouettes and the interlocking pieces which make a jigsaw puzzle, he begin to wonder if there were not shut-ins in Evanston, Illinois, his home town, who might find life more satisfactory if they could be busy with a light profitable activity.
To think of others is second nature to Lord; and for him, action follows quickly upon the heels of thought. He went promptly to the Visiting Nurse Association and got the names of persons to whom his project might be helpful. This well intentioned idea didn't work out precisely as expected, for today most of his coworkers are not shut-ins. The number working at any one time is never large; sometimes only two are working, sometimes six. Puzzle cutters are a variable folk. A person may finish a puzzle and not feel like doing another for several weeks. One pair, a grandfather and grandson both work at times on cutting. The boy rips rapidly through his; the grandfather works slowly and carefully. "There was never a better puzzle cut," he said when he finished his last one. For some people puzzle cutting seems as satisfactory as knitting does to others.
If a coworker has no electric saw, Lord provides a portable one which can be used upon a kitchen table, or on a workbench if it is available. These saws are obtainable at mail order houses at a cost of about $13. Lord uses a delicate blade, 7/1000 of an inch in thickness, for all cutting. With it he can have perfect control of the fine edges, sharp angles, and the clean, clear lines which make his puzzles so superior. After cutting, the pieces are buffed lightly with a sander to make them perfectly smooth.
Lord teaches his coworkers the varied forms of interlocking by which a puzzle is made complicated and worth the skill of a puzzle solver. The novice practices on plain plywood until he becomes sufficiently expert to do good work on the puzzles.
At his wife's studio, Lord works in his own well lighted room. From wide windows he can look down upon one of Evanston's busiest streets. Here he does the sawing necessary to prepare the work for his helpers. He always cuts each silhouette himself, together with the adjacent pieces, because each figure presents its own problem of being interlocked into place. He has devised a skilled technique to make this cutting perfect.
“The cutting, " says Lord, "must follow certain fundamentals. Each piece must be sawed so that it is interlocking in several places. This keeps the puzzle together and it can be moved as a complete picture.”
"For the coworkers, the picture is divided into sections about 5 by 8 inches, each one of which is placed in its own envelope. The coworkers cut the prepared sections into properly interlocking parts, following the instructions given by Lord when he taught them the ways of making satisfactory puzzle cuttings. Payment for this work is made on a piece basis.
Here is one of William Lord’s intricately cut jigsaw puzzles. The dark figures above fit into the corresponding white spaces which are visible in the picture below. The fact that he cuts many of his interlocking pieces into the shapes of birds, animals, human figures and the like, adds greatly to the appeal of Lord's puzzles.
The number of pieces into which a puzzle is cut depends upon the ultimate consumer. For children, fifteen pieces often are enough. One of a turkey has forty pieces. A Lord puzzle called "The Jungle" is cut into 423. "A Spanish Fishing Village” has 690. Lord estimates an average of 170 pieces to each 100 square inches.
Of course, before any cutting is done, the plyboard and picture must be made to adhere in perfect smoothness and permanently. The old standby used to be glue. This can still be used, but with it for a perfect job on a good sized picture a glue press is necessary. Since these presses are scarce, Lord at first had all of his large pictures glued at an art shop, where the picture and the plyboard were given a 500 pound pressure overnight. Since the water content of glue is apt to stretch the paper and warp plyboard, this glue press work is almost essential for satisfactory adhesion.
For Lord, the use of glue is no longer considered satisfactory. He has found that pyroxylin lacquer is the perfect adhesive. It is applied by brush to the two surfaces which are to be attached; when they are tacky they are put together and all air bubbles removed with a roller. The lacquer was first tried out on a series of Alpine views about 6 by 9 inches. The pictures adhered to the plyboard as smoothly and firmly as if they had been printed there. These small invigorating mountain scenes are designed for the trays of invalids. They are an easily manageable size and not too tiring to complete.
The mechanical process, which in Lord’s work is close to the point of perfection, is not half of the excellence found in his product. There is an inner quality which begins with choosing a picture. A superb choice is a matter of paramount concern to Lord and his artist wife. Each selection is made with great care; it must have artistic quality in subject, color and form, and also besuited to the persons who are going to enjoy pitting their skill of arrangement against the cutting skill of the puzzle maker.
Puzzles are made for people of all ages and for people with all sorts of interests. When certain officials of Chicago's Railroad Fair opened their 1949 Christmas parcels, they found, cleverly cut into jigsaw puzzles, some of the lovely posters used in advertising the widely attended summer attraction which they had promoted so zealously. Nothing could be more delightfully appropriate.
Many aesthetically satisfying prints are made for the enjoyment of adults. From reproductions of famous paintings, Lord has cut an art appreciation series. The Lords have arranged informational material for these, giving a history of the painting and the artist who produced it.
Over the grapevine a big sporting goods store in Chicago's Loop heard of Lord's superb puzzles. Always on the lookout for the excellent and the unusual, they now feature sporting prints made by Lord into jigsaw puzzles.
Many of Mrs. Lord's own watercolors, full of color and charm, are well suited for picture puzzling. Of these originals, one of the best is "The Toy Shop." The vivid interior full of toys, children and grown people is difficult and challenging. The method of assembling colors, which is used by many a puzzle worker, is entirely useless with "The Toy Shop" because of the wide distribution of reds, blues and yellows. Other extremely interesting pictures are original jungle scenes done by Mrs. Lord. The use of an original picture insures an entirely unique puzzle. The jungle views are done in bright tones with wild animals stalking over the sand or through the tropic vegetation.
One of the larger puzzles is an 18 by 20 inch view of Fountain Square, the center of old Evanston. The original was painted by Walter Burt Adams, just before the old square was demolished to be modernized for the benefit of today's vehicular traffic. Mr. Lord has made six of these Fountain Square puzzles for old Evanstonians who like remembrance of things past.
Many children like to work at fitting the parts of a puzzle together. They feel pleased when the picture begins to appear, and triumphant when it is finished. One enthusiastic grandmother wrote to Lord, telling him that her five year old grandchild had enjoyed the Double L (this is Lord's trademark) puzzle more than any other gift he had received on his birthday. He had put it together countless times. She placed a good order for more. In fact, for twenty more. Another order came for a puzzle to please a three year old, who tried to help the adults in the family by finding for them pieces which would fit into the puzzles upon which they were working. Lord knows now, by experience, just how many pieces will be correct for the attention span of a small child, so that the power of concentration will not be exhausted. The prints used for children's picture puzzles are those which mirror a child's interests. Don Towsley's colorful animal pictures are great favorites. A fat old hen or a circus elephant, cut in outlines and made up of twelve or fifteen pieces, is simple and entertaining.
Edgar Miller, mural painter and wallpaper designer, has furnished many good patterns from the picture wallpaper which he plans especially for children's rooms.
CONSTANCE SPRAY works a puzzle on the special jigsaw puzzle tray devised by William Lord. If the puzzle solver is interrupted, she fits the cover, leaning against the wall, over the tray and the sponge rubber lining of the cover holds the puzzle in place by soft pressure.
After the choice of an entirely suitable picture, a second element enters into the perfection of the LL puzzles. This is the unusual pattern designs into which the mounted pictures are cut. The majority of puzzles are composed of interlocking pieces which have no particular significance. These depend entirely upon the picture itself for assembling fun. But Lord's puzzles have a far greater excellence, because each one has a number of significant silhouettes, appropriate to the subject, cut into the puzzle form. Mrs.Lord drew these freehand in the beginning; but now, with the repetition of puzzles, she does an original set and uses carbon paper to trace them on the others.
The children's puzzles are heightened in pleasure because they are cut into pieces representing birds, animals and trees. Silhouettes for the “Fountain Square” picture include a horse and wagon, an automobile, the old turreted City Hall and similar things which fit into the spirit of the picture. "The Jungle" has parrots, palm trees, tigers and lions figures which we associate with the tropics. A japanese picture has coolies, trees, cherry blossoms, and ladies in kimonos; a Mexican one has fans, a guitar, a sombrero, dancing figures; a merry-go-round has prancing horses - each puzzle has its own special interest developed in silhouettes. It is exciting just to look into a puzzle box and see the tiny perfect figures.
But was this good enough for the indefatigable master puzzle cutter? No. He conceived the idea of showing a puzzle in its entirety mounted upon a background with an array of silhouettes showing the special»interest cut out figures to be found in the puzzle. Over the mount he places cellulose acetate. This helps his customers who wish to decide upon purchases, as well as renters who are looking for their own entertainment. So intriguing is the result that the only way to keep from buying extravagantly is to look out the window and think hard about the grocery budget. The tiny figures, drawn by Mrs. Lord and cut by this master cutter, have an attraction all their own and make almost anyone want to empty the pieces out of a box and start working on a puzzle.
A most satisfactory aid to the ease and comfort of working puzzles has been devised by Lord. To puzzle fans, time presents a problem because a puzzle can seldom be finished in one sitting and it is frequently assembled on a card table. During the time required for complete solution, the table is often commandeered for its original use. Lord has a solution for the former frustrated jigsaw puzzler. He has made a puzzle tray and cover. The tray fits a card table and has a raised edge so the pieces cannot readily be brushed off and fall to the floor. If the table is needed during the process of composition, the cover is placed over the tray. Since the cover is lined with foam rubber, every piece of the puzzle stays in place, held by the soft pressure. When the tray and cover are fastened together, the puzzle and its container can be put on edge in a closet entirely out of the way. The solution can be resumed at any time by merely lifting the cover from the base. Every piece is found in the precise place where it had been left.
These truly wonderful puzzles have readily found a market. For about twenty years Mrs. Lord has been head of her own art school, The Katherine Lord School of Art. Each fall it has been her custom to hold an open house and exhibit the work of her teachers. The LL jigsaw puzzles were added to the work thus displayed in the fall of 1948. They were shown on a table and excited much favorable interest. They were shown again in 1949, and again received much attention.
The day following the first open house, a woman came rushing in. "l want to see the puzzles!" she exclaimed. "I couldn’t get here yesterday." This women spent $172 that day on puzzles. Sales are not always of that size but 'this not unusual to sell $40 or $50 worth of puzzles in one sale. Here, as in many lines. the approaching holidays bring an increased number of sales. Seasonal puzzlers are always popular. In February, a decorated red heart puzzle makes an unusual valentine gift for a sweet heart.
Prices for Lord's puzzles range from $3 for a simple outline puzzle for a child to $35 or more for an original painted by Mrs. Lord. The puzzles are rented as well as sold. The minimum rental charge is 35 cents for two days and 10 cents for each day thereafter. The only advertising done has been a card in the local weekly paper. Person-to-person talk results in many new customers, both direct and by mail, for this puzzle cutting can produce a very individual gift, catering to the interest of the person who "has everything." A colored print made from the photo finish of a favorite horse as he wins a race could be an unduplicated gift for the horse owner.
Lord began making puzzles on plyboard with basswood veneer, but he has decided that mahogany is much better and there is little difference in cost. Mahogany is not affected by moisture, makes a pleasant finish to handle, and seems very elegant. Nothing has been left undone to make these puzzles the very best that can be made.
However, this need not deter any from making satisfactory jigsaw puzzles. Pictures are not difficult to come by. They are accessible to anyone who can get to a magazine stand or find a pile of magazines in the attic. The Saturday Evening Port has many covers which would be excellent material for cutting. The National Geographic has some delightful colored views, which would make lovely small puzzles. This magazine is very often found in secondhand book stores at a surprisingly low price. Calendars offer attractive views, and don't forget wallpaper. Of course prints can be had in art stores and art museums. And as for silhouettes, small usable figures are to be found in many places and may be traced upon the back of the plyboard.
Puzzles are frequently offered for sale in book stores, in rental libraries and stationery shops.
The physical equipment needed for a business of this sort is not great. A technique, with imagination to devise correctly interlocking pieces, should bring a measure of success to any puzzle cutting enthusiast.
(Character recognized from a poor copy by Michael Sands, November 2009. Any mistakes are mine.)
A dollar in 1948 is worth $8.98 in 2009. A puzzle selling for $35 in 1948 is equivalent to a puzzle selling for $314 today!
Dr. John B. Lord , or Jack, as he was more commonly known, was the son of William and Katherine Lord, creators of the LL Puzzles. Jack helped raise eight children, six of his own and two step-sons. I was lucky enough to be one of the latter and so I grew up with many of the puzzles.