Jessica Helfand | Collections

In the Palm of Your Hand: Dexterity Puzzles

Quoits, a classic game not unlike horsehoes, lends itself perfectly to a dexterity puzzle

Dexterity games — also known as skill games, palm puzzles and hand-held games — have fascinated adults and children since the 19th Century. The essential hand-eye challenge of rolling a ball into a hole or tilting a capsule through a maze has proved among the most delightful, maddening, and enduring diversions of the modern age, despite — or perhaps because of — its sheer simplicity.

While the first rolling-ball puzzles were available in England as early as the 1840’s, it was Charles M. Crandall’s Pigs in Clover, introduced in 1889, that captured the enthusiasm of the American public. Senators took the game into the Senate Chambers during debates, and US President Benjamin Harrison is said to have played the game in the White House instead of tending to politics. By 1890, orders for Pigs in Clover were in excess of 8,000 a day.

Beginning in 1891, the London-based firm of R. Journet and Company designed more than one hundred innovative glass-top dexterity games. “A good puzzle should be simple in idea,” Journet once said. ”It should explain itself without any long instructions and it should look attractive.” The first British Industries Fair in 1918 produced orders for large numbers of these puzzles (especially from the United States) and marked the real start of Journet’s puzzle business, which would continue well into the twentieth century. In those early years, dexterity games gained an international following and were also being produced in great numbers in France, Germany and Japan.

Wartime scenes and military challenges proved especially adaptable to the makers of dexterity puzzles. The World War I-era game The Silver Bullet invites the player to negotiate pitfalls and maneuver the ball safely past German strongholds. Other puzzles feature zeppelins to be moored and Kaisers to be “kaught”, flight formation line-ups and build-a-plane challenges: and “Rafie’s Rollicking Trip to Berlin” a maze with a small drawing of a saluting Hitler located at the finish line. During the Second World War, The Gilbert Company of New Haven made an Atomic Bomb puzzle that let players reenact the bombing of Japan. (In the 1950s, they modified this game to represent a more generic target.) In addition to thematic portrayals of war-related activities, these games were also popular with soldiers because they were so small and portable.

Yet while wartime situations found themselves reflected in these games, the puzzles themselves became mirrors of a much broader range of consumer culture. There were Popeye puzzles, Lone Ranger puzzles, Mickey Mouse and Superman puzzles. There were sports puzzles featuring fishing or golf or horseshoes; supermarket puzzles showing menu items at single-digit prices; and by mid-century, a host of puzzles celebrating the wonders of interplanetary space exploration. From Howdy Doody to Blondie and Dagwood to the Dionne Quintuplets, dexterity puzzles provided a miniature, perpetually-changing canvas of popular culture.

By the 1960’s many dexterity games shifted from vibrant reflections of daily life to an emphasis on mazes, optical illusions and geometric challenges. Dexterity games became known as “brain teasers,” reflecting a change in emphasis and style that would be hastened by the advent of hand-held electronic games. From Atari to Nintendo to Sony PlayStation, these new electronic diversions depended upon a hand-eye coordination that had its roots in early games of patience and dexterity.

(Thanks to dexterity puzzle collector Barbara Levine who contributed to this essay.)

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [2]

These are awesome! I can't imagine the excitement and joy of discovering them at flea markets and the like... Thanks for Sharing!

Great to see the puzzles getting acknowledged in context of art, design and culture.
Barbara Levine

Jobs | June 22