Astounding and Confounding:
KATONAH, N.Y. – For millennia, puzzles have teased us, astonished us, confounded us, and tested our mettle. Trick boxes, magic locks, mazes, jigsaw puzzles, interlocking puzzles – you name it; they’ve kept us occupied for hours – their surprising intricacy, amazing design, and unusual craftsmanship only adding to the allure. No doubt about it; puzzle-solving is part of the fabric of daily life.
“Whether we realize it or not, we solve puzzles every day,” notes Will Shortz, Crossword Editor for The New York Times. “What’s the fastest way to run five errands? (That’s a complex sequential movement puzzle.) What’s the fastest way to straighten out a chain of Christmas tree lights? (That’s a disentanglement puzzle.) But the main difference between real-life puzzles and artificially constructed ones is that the former have no identifiably correct solutions, while the latter always do.”
To celebrate this special art form, the Katonah Museum of Art has organized an innovative and interactive exhibition on view through January 7, 2001. Titled “: Astounding and Confounding,” the show focuses on the history and development of the puzzle (the physical object) as well as the application and ramification of puzzle-solving during the past three centuries. The relationship between the puzzle’s creator and solver is an important theme of the show, as well as how puzzles are used for education and amusement.
“We invite the public to come in to be astounded and confounded by these sensational objects,” says Mary Lou Alpert, museum co-project director with Aline Benjamin. “You can admire what’s on view and also try your hand at many of the mechanicals.”
The exhibit contains 237 mechanical and 105 jigsaw puzzles – “impossible puzzles,” vanishing puzzles, take-apart puzzles, put-together puzzles, interlocking puzzles, disentanglement puzzles, string puzzles, dexterity puzzles – each one with its own story and its own challenge. They come from around the world and relate to such disciplines as decorative art, mathematics, psychology, science, sociology, and education. They reflect patriotism, historic events, cultural and racial prejudice, as well as family life.
Dating from the Eighteenth Century to the present day, the puzzles embody advances in technology and craftsmanship that have occurred over the years.
Curators Jerry Slocum and Anne D. Williams selected the puzzles for their historical importance, ingenuity of design, beauty, craftsmanship, and mathematical and scientific interest. A sampling of what is in the show includes a 54-way trick box from Japan (1985); a puzzle ring from Egypt (1940); a Cross Puzzle (circa 1820-1850) from China; a Victorian trick lock (circa 1880); a map puzzle (circa 1766) and an “Emigrants to the United States” jigsaw puzzle (1840) from England; a “Drink-if-you-can” jug from Italy (late Nineteenth Century); a trick knife (1992) from Russia; a Potawatomi puzzle bag with dice (1880) from the Potawatomi Tribe; “Love, Can You Make It?” a disentanglement puzzle (1890); “Howdy Doody with NBC Mike” keychain (1940); and “Ben Casey Jigsaw Puzzle” (1962) from the USA.
In putting the show together, the Museum assembled a team of experts, including Anne Douglas Williams, Professor of Economics, Bates College, and the foremost authority on jigsaw puzzles in the United States; Jerry Slocum, independent curator, author and foremost authority on mechanical puzzles in the United States; Dr Martin Garner, mathematics and science writer; and Will Shortz, puzzle historian and crossword editor for The New York Times.
Excerpts from the exhibition catalogue follow.
Throughout recorded history, mechanical puzzles have mystified, intrigued, educated, and entertained. They may be defined as hand-held objects that must be manipulated to achieve a specific goal. The goal may be to put the pieces together to form a specific pattern, as with the Chinese Tangram; take the object apart, as with a puzzle lock; or rearrange it, as with a Rubik’s Cube. All mechanical puzzles pose deductive reasoning problems that frequently require unorthodox thinking. Solving a mechanical puzzle can indeed by astounding and confounding, but above all else, it is exhilarating.
Solving a puzzle can be a visual and tactile delight when the design and craftsmanship are superb. Elegant Chinese ivory puzzles were often exquisitely carved, displaying intricate scenes. The Chinese were so enthralled by the elegance of the Tangram that they even made them into ceramic and cloisonne bronze dishes. French color lithography provided elegant and imaginative boxes for hundreds of dexterity and wire puzzles. Modern polyhedral puzzles, designed by master puzzle designer Steward Coffin, prove that wooden puzzles can also be objects of art.
Puzzles are invented mainly to entertain, but they can also instruct. In the early Twentieth Century in Italy, Maria Montessori used puzzles in nursery schools to stress the importance of trial and error in learning. Chinese tangrams are used in countless elementary schools in the US, Europe, and Asia to teach geometry and many other subjects. A Los Angeles high school teacher finds that the best way to teach teenage criminals in jail is by using a variety of puzzles. At an advanced level, there may be no better way of teaching mathematical group theory than by the use of Rubik’s Cube. Philosopher-logician Raymond Smullyan tells of a phone call from a friend whose son was enjoying one of Smullyan’s puzzle books. “He loves your book,” the friend said in a conspiratorial tone, “but when you speak to him, don’t let him know he’s doing math. He hates math!”
Puzzles can reflect what French historians have called the mentality of their times. For example, they may show patriotism and historic events. Cultural and racial prejudice and family life are also often reflected in puzzles.
Even though mechanical puzzles have been around for centuries, they were first described at length by Professor Angelo Louis Hoffmann in his classic book Puzzles Old and New, published in London in 1893. He noted the difficulty of classifying puzzles and then described about 400 mechanical, mathematical, and word puzzles in detail, and provided the solutions. I have modified and expanded his approach to classifying puzzles, with the mechanical puzzles divided into categories based on what must be done to solve the puzzle and the form and material of the puzzle itself.
Mechanical puzzles are classified as Put-Together Puzzles; Take-Apart Puzzles; Interlocking Puzzles; Disentanglement Puzzles; Sequential-Movement Puzzles; Dexterity Puzzles; Puzzle Vessels; Vanish Puzzles; Folding Puzzles; and Impossible Puzzles.
The exhibit surveys the history of the jigsaw puzzle since its invention in the mid-1700s. Over the last two and a half centuries, it has evolved from an educational plaything for the children of the rich into a broader form of entertainment for both children and adults of all income levels. The subject matter, originally limited to “dissected maps,” has grown to encompass virtually every possible topic. Indeed, the images on puzzles mirror our lives, both realistic and idealized, as they depict current events, the fine arts, literature, icons of popular culture, and everyday life. Jigsaw puzzles also play a role as persuaders when businesses distribute promotional puzzles that picture their products.
The puzzle industry too has changed over the last two and a half centuries. The use of simple fret saws to cut up hand-colored engravings in the 1760s has yielded to modern technologies. Most jigsaw puzzles today are mass produced by large companies that use modern color printing, die-cutting, and even computer-controlled water jets and lasers. Yet, individual craftspeople working alone or in small workshops have always played a major part in puzzle production. Their creativity and artistry in finding new ways to perplex and please puzzle solvers still remain important today.
Jigsaw puzzles reflect society and its preoccupations. Current events and historical subjects have been popular since the earliest children’s puzzles of the monarchs of England. World’s fairs and elections have inspired numerous puzzles. In 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, puzzles celebrating his role in the early years of the Republic abounded. War and military themes, from the American Revolution through World War II, have had an enduring appeal.
Many puzzle images stem from literature, art, and popular culture. Stories as diverse as Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Copperfield all appear on jigsaws. The artists whose works decorated puzzles are also varied, ranging from Old Masters to French Impressionists. Puzzlers demonstrated a special fondness for the Americana of Currier & Ives and Norman Rockwell, as well as for the work of earlier magazine illustrators like N.C. Wyeth, Philip Boileau, and Harrison Fisher. Children’s book illustrators have also been a rich source of puzzle material, derived from artists such as Jessie Willcox Smith, Fern Bisel Peat, and Johnny Gruelle.
In the Twentieth Century entertainment personalities found their way onto puzzles, reflecting the growing importance of the new media of radio, then cinema, and then television. The use of media characters began in the 1890s when McLoughlin Brothers published a Yellow Kid jigsaw based on R.F. Outcault’s comic strip. Licensing accelerated in the 1930s when comic characters like Mickey Muse and radio and show business personalities like Eddie Cantor and Greta Garbo made appearances.
After World War II licensed properties accounted for an even larger share of the puzzle market due to the influence of television and other electronic media, as well as changes in the marketing of toys. Children who enjoyed The Lone Ranger, Star Wars, and Peanuts, and who played with Barbie and GI Joe, looked for these characters on their puzzles, and puzzles designed for adults showed scenes from popular television series, movies, concerts, and the world of professional sports.
Promotional puzzles date back to the 1880s when the Rev E.J. Clemens of Clayville, N.Y., published double-sided Silent Teacher puzzles. The map side educated, while the reverse promoted products like White sewing machines. A few years later the C.I. Hood Company of Lowell, Mass., began issuing its own premium puzzles, free to customers who mailed in Hood’s Sarsaparilla labels.
The hundreds of advertising puzzles of the 1930s give a fascinating picture of what could be found in the stores then, from coffee to liniment. Forty years later, while some companies continued to give away puzzles as premiums, many of the biggest brand names were licensed for commercial production. Puzzlers today often pay to buy a puzzle that shows their preference in soft drinks, automobiles, or resorts.
Much of everyday life finds a place on jigsaw puzzles, especially people at home and at play. Scenes of courtship, mothers and children, sports, country fairs, dancers, fishermen, pets, and the like consistently appeal to puzzlers. Transportation subjects serve both to celebrate new technologies and to conjure up dreams of travel to distant places.
While humor and romance are common themes, puzzles avoid the less pleasant sides of life: illness, social conflict, crime, and work (except for pastoral farming scenes). Business ventures and jobs, which have always been featured prominently on board games, appear only rarely on puzzles. Minorities, too, are noticeably absent as puzzle subjects.
Jigsaw puzzles stand on their own as creative achievements. There is always an implicit contest between the puzzle maker and the puzzle solver, even though they never meet in person. That interplay is enhanced when the maker brings artistry and imagination to the task. He or she must, of course, select an image that makes an intriguing puzzle, but much of the creative effort takes place when determining how the image is cut into pieces. This is most apparent in wooden puzzles for adults, where the slow process of cutting each piece individually often encourages the makers to think creatively about the cutting design. They have used a variety of means to tease and engage the puzzler, while increasing the difficulty of assembly.
The Katonah Museum of Art is open from Tuesday to Friday and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm; and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. For information, 914/232-9555.