Monday, October 5, 2020

Puzzle Blocks and Cube Puzzles

by Anita Mae Draper

<a href="" title="More information about this image"><img src="/ObjView/NVMA/19740890059.JPG" width="385" height="289" alt="Puzzle |  | C.89.59" /></a>
Map block puzzle, 20th century. Courtesy of © McCord Museum

Colored puzzle blocks like the one in the map puzzle image above, courtesy of the © McCord Museum, have been around since Louis Prang presented chromolithography to the world in 1897. Before then, what was called color lithography was lackluster in appearance and often monotone and dull. With Prang's new process using bright multi-colors, imaginations soared for children and adults alike.

Puzzles blocks are created by pasting parts of a large image on hollow blocks of wood. Since a block has six sides, each puzzle box contained a card showing what each completed puzzle looked like. A page from the 1880-81 McLoughlin Brothers' Catalogue of Games shows a listing of what were called cube puzzles. The list shows a variety of topics, including stories our children still read today. 

McLoughlin Brothers Catalogue of Games, 1880-1881. Public Domain, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

The puzzles were challenging when similar images of the same topic were included in one box, especially so before the use of chromolithography. Interestingly, the left side of the McLoughlin Bros catalog page shows puzzles called comic and transformation cubes which don't necessarily match. This type invites the imagination to create characters, animals, or things without feeling the need to solve a puzzle. 

In 1898, McLoughlin Bros of New York printed this block puzzle of children playing. The colors show the exquisite detailing of the images, similar to the oil paintings which Louis Prang envisioned when he created the chromolithography process.

Puzzle blocks of this caliber are still available if one takes the time to search out them out. I found this set online at SS Moore Antiques on Rubylane where they were kind enough to let me use the images. My research into puzzle blocks showed that because the pictures were pasted onto the wood cubes, corners tend to show the most wear, and cards grow brittle. Both blocks and cards are often lost over the years, yet they are still valuable if you like to display vintage items in your decor. 

Although the cube puzzles were eye-catching in stores, it would be many years before catalogues advertising them, or any other toys, were printed in color. 

McLoughlin Bro.'s Catalogue, 1900. Public Domain, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society 

If you're interested in puzzles and game boards, check out my previous posts:
Aug 5, 2020 - Carom and Crokinole
June 5, 2020 - Virtue Board Games
May 5, 2020 - Geographical Board Games


Anita Mae Draper served a 20-year term working on air bases in the communication trade of the Canadian Armed Forces before retiring to the open skies of the prairies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism as well as faith. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. Thanks for posting, and it's great that the museum allowed you to reprint the pictures! Those puzzles are beautiful.

    1. I agree, Connie. I try to use free domain images whenever possible, but so many of the quality images about objects of the past are held by museums, library, archives, or found in antique stores. A simple request for permission allows me to use these images to show you history in real life.
      Thanks for stopping by, Connie. Have a safe day.

  2. My kids had some of those puzzle cubes, but I didn't realize they'd been around that long. Interesting post!

  3. The two catalog pages noted as 1880-1881 appear to be from the 1900 catalog at the American Antiquarian Society at .

    1. Thanks for checking out my post, Rick. I've gone over my notes and sources and have confirmed the following:

      - the unnumbered page of block puzzles that appears in my post under the caption "McLoughlin Brothers Catalogue of Games, 1880-1881. Public Domain, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society" is confirmed according to where I found the pdf copy at

      - the url that you've given does show the MODEL BUILDING BLOCKS from the 1880-1881 catalogue, however it is located in the 1900 catalogue on page 139 and doesn't show the other puzzles, cubes, etc as mentioned above in the 1880-1881 catalogue. There may be another page which is duplicated in both catalogues, but I couldn't find it.

      I appreciate that you've contacted me because I hadn't realized I'd missed giving the credit to the American Antiquarian Society on either of the pages. Thanks to you, I've rectified that.