Handcut Puzzles.SportsPuzzles

Sports Puzzles: A Journey Through History

From digitized sports images to large complex cutting presses, sports puzzles have come a long way over the decades.

Sports puzzles, specifically sports jigsaw puzzles, have been around for decades.

But, there have been key milestones that have brought puzzles to what has become a mass gaming pastime.

In this blog post, we'll take a journey through the early days of the jigsaw puzzle, exploring its humble beginnings and the pioneers who brought it to life. We'll then delve into how sports puzzles transitioned into popular culture, becoming a beloved pastime for fans of all ages. Finally, we'll look at where jigsaw sports puzzles are today, showcasing the innovative techniques and technologies used to create these modern masterpieces.

The Early Days of Sports Puzzles

Puzzles originally come from maps. In the 1700s, a young map engraver, John Spilsbury, is generally believed to have been the first to popularize the puzzle. In London, Spilsbury sold his dissected maps made by mounting maps onto a sheet of mahogany wood and then cutting out the countries along the boundary lines.

They were bought and used as learning tools for kids to learn basic geography. However, they became quite popular among wealthy British like Queen Charlotte, who would use them to teach the royal children. It makes sense - puzzles at that time were labor intensive, each one hand-crafted using good wood and high-quality images glued to a wooden board. Thus, puzzles were mostly for the rich.

 Wood puzzles are still available today since they are generally more durable than cardboard versions.

Old puzzles.Handcut


The Rise of Sports Puzzles

So, when did sports puzzles become part of the popular crowd? There is evidence of a sports connection as early as the 1800s. Believe it or not, a puzzle called ‘Granville Smith, 1894’ pictures women playing rugby. Experts date it to the early 1900s and say it was done out of plywood by artist Mary E. Underwood. Interestingly, women were mainly the puzzle cutters at that time.

But it was in the 1900s that puzzles turned into a home amusement activity rather than an educational tool. This is when retailers began to promote their puzzles, including sports puzzles, to adults. It appears this set off a craze in England that eventually spread to the United States.

These sports puzzles were made with colorful images using newer lithography techniques.

By the mid-1930s, puzzles took on a new role - a promotional tool. Corporations caught on to the puzzle craze and started using them to push their products. Thus, we see big companies like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley taking advantage of the popularity of this pastime.

Along with it, the sports puzzle emerged as a promotional tool for athletes and sports scenes.

A quick browse on the eBay app, it’s easy to find collectors puzzles, including a 1940s Jack O’Brien Wheaties jigsaw puzzle. O’Brien was an explorer and dog team driver who went with Commander Richard Byrd to find the South Pole. The instructions on the box instruct buyers to cut out the puzzle with a sharp knife along the black lines and “you will have a beautiful color picture of ‘Jack O’Brien eating Wheaties!’ There’s also a puzzle featuring a nostalgic 1953 Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. Collectors can even find a vintage TUCO Deluxe Picture Puzzle which features a hunting scene with two men about to enjoy a cigar after a hunting expedition. According to the seller, the puzzle is from the 1940s.

The creation of sports puzzles was a significant development in the history of puzzles, as it marked the first time that puzzles were being created specifically for adults and with a focus on entertainment rather than education. The popularity of sports puzzles also reflected the growing interest in sports and athletic competition during this period.

Puzzle Innovations and Advancements

By the mid-20th century, puzzle pieces were made to interlock and not fall apart so easily. Thus, puzzling became more enjoyable for players – no falling apart. In addition, cheaper materials and improved die-cutting machines contributed to plummeting puzzle prices. This made puzzles more accessible.

Suddenly, puzzles, including sports puzzles, became an affordable form of entertainment for the masses. Remember, it was the Great Depression - people had the time and inclination to stay home. Now they had another distraction from all the financial chaos.  

Sports Puzzles Today

Today, the largest puzzle-making companies can make upwards of two million puzzles in a month. But how?

The process has become much more efficient over time. Most jigsaw puzzle makers use dry mounts with a heat press. Puzzles often start as sketches in-house, which are then digitized. A team of sometimes up to six designers, will print it out and overlay a cut pattern on top. Cuts are carried out with a focus on creating perfect angles and sizes for that satisfying snap. A puzzle can be picked up and the pieces will hold together when it’s completed.


Did you know? The largest puzzle that can be bought and assembled (as of 2022) is called “What a Wonderful World”, contains 60,000 pieces, and is an eight-foot by 29-foot illustration of the world. It’s not cheap. Dowdle, the maker of the puzzle, says the puzzle is around $600 and is available at Costco.


Once a puzzle design is approved, it heads to manufacturing. Everything from a 250-piece sports puzzle to 2,000-piece designs is then cut. The biggest puzzles can take about 30 hours to make, from an uncut image to a finished puzzle. The puzzle image is glued to a cardboard backing so it's sturdy. The mounted images are put aside for a few days while the glue cures. Then it’s off to the cutting presses.

Nowadays, there are new ways to enjoy the puzzle genre. 3D puzzles are three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. These are similar to model kits but instead, the pieces are puzzle pieces that interlock to form a 3D shape. Players can build anything from the batmobile, castles, or the ‘Central Perk’ café from the TV show ‘Friends’. Sports enthusiasts can find 3D sports puzzles that allow them to build a soccer ball or a figure of a baseball in a glove. There are also 3D sports puzzles to build stadiums and racing cars.

Even the regular jigsaw puzzle has advanced into single-color puzzles (imagine an all-white puzzle), translucent and custom-made puzzles where players can choose the size and number of pieces in a puzzle. Custom puzzles can be fully created online.

Sports puzzles today come in just about every size including sports puzzles 300 pieces, 500 pieces, up to 1,000 pieces, and beyond. Collectors can find their favorite athletes and teams and celebrate them on cardboard or even classic wood puzzles.


Sports puzzles have come a long way. They share their history and journey with the humble beginnings of the original wood puzzle - a niche form of entertainment for the rich and wealthy.

Today they are a game pastime that can be played by anyone. Thanks to technology and digitized sports images, sports puzzles have become an integral part of sports culture. Whether it’s the latest 3D puzzle or made custom online, sports puzzles bring joy while offering a challenge to fans of all ages.



Puzzle. britannica.com

From Educational Tool to Pop Culture Phenomenon. The Evolution of Jigsaw puzzles. wimberlypuzzle.company

History Detectives.pbs.org

Jigsaw Puzzles in American History. YouTube.com

Escapism and Leisure Time 1929-1941. Encyclopedia.com

How America’s Largest Puzzle Factory Makes 2 Million Puzzles a Month. YouTube

The World’s Largest Puzzle by Dowdle. Costco.com

Jack O’Brien jigsaw puzzle. Ebay.com.