The Original American Puzzle

Often, at the Carriage Barn, we like to look at old artifacts and research how they fit into the cultural landscape of their time. The wooden puzzle box in our permanent collection represents the leisure activity of many wealthy Americans at the turn of the century. This puzzle box was most likely created in the early 20th century. It displays a beautiful Victorian design and offers six different puzzles for families to complete.

Puzzles became a craze in American culture during the early 20th century. However, prior to the 1930s, puzzles were fairly expensive and often only well-off families owned them. This is because most puzzles were made of wood, like the one shown below. We can surmise that this particular puzzle box was most likely owned by a financially established family. The tide change in puzzle ownership came with the Great Depression.

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The Great Depression influenced countless aspects of daily life among Americans. Interestingly, one industry heavily influenced by the Great Depression was the puzzle making industry. Depression-era Americans were constantly looking for cheap and easy forms of entertainment. Despite initially being a recreational activity for the wealthy, puzzles were given new life in the 1930s when entrepreneurs began mass-producing them by using heavy cardboard, rather than wood. By 1934 3.5 million puzzles had been sold throughout the U.S. and, according to a 1938 poll by the National Recreation Association, puzzles were named one of the most frequent at-home activities.1

Though popularity has waned for puzzles since the Great Depression, a plethora of puzzle communities, competitions, and puzzle-player websites prove that this activity will continue to hold a special place in American culture.

 

  1. “Everyday Living.” Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 1: Almanac, UXL, 2003, pp. 187-211. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3425600022/GVRL?u=sant46959&sid=GVRL&xid=f4101ebd. Accessed 16 Jan. 2019.

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