In John Madden’s workshop in the basement of his home in Coram, New York, there’s a layer of sawdust over everything. There’s sawdust on the tables, there’s sawdust on the floor, there’s even sawdust on the back of the shirt he’s wearing. Tables run along three of the walls. On the tables are pictures with irregular edges lying on top of big sheets of paper. The pictures are all different: an art deco face peering down on goldfish, futurist racehorses by Roy Lichtenstein, a rainbow-colored Pegasus mid-leap, a cramped Irish town depicted in three levels.
All the images, to various degrees, are covered in little bumpy lines. Some are entirely full of them, some just halfway covered. These lines are not like the cracks that appear in glass, more what it would look like to crack something supple and not brittle. How mud cracks in drought. On the wall, there’s a silhouette of a seahorse holding a top hat and a cane. The seahorse is the emblem of Par Company Ltd. Par makes puzzles, they make picture puzzles, that is to say, Par makes jigsaw puzzles, of pictures.
The company was founded in 1932 by Frank Ware and John Henriques. Both men, who were living in New York City, lost their jobs in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. After being unemployed for some time, the couple sought a way to keep busy. They hit on jigsaw puzzles, which had become far more popular during the Great Depression with many looking to find a cheap distraction that could occupy many hours. Henriques’ family was already avid puzzlers. In 1931, they cut their first puzzle, a Matisse print, with a coping saw at the dining room table.
At first, they made puzzles just to amuse themselves and their friends. They experimented with materials and styles of cutting, eventually deciding on their own standards by which to abide. But as unemployment and the jigsaw craze intensified, it became clear that their friends and strangers alike were willing to rent or even buy their puzzles. They decided to go into the jigsaw puzzle business. They bought a scroll saw and some walnut plywood and set up a workshop in their basement at 419 West 154th Street.
They took the name for the business from the golf term. Instead of specifying a number of strokes that a first-class player should require for a particular hole, each puzzle came with a “par” time in which a first-class puzzler should be able to complete it (as set by the time it took Henriques to assemble the puzzle in the day; today, Madden sets “par” time). From the start and to this day, Par’s product is a puzzle and a time in a black box. That’s it. There is no picture on the box cover or inside, and the puzzle’s name is purposely lacking in specificity. The satisfaction is to be found not just in its completion but also in the discovery of the image’s true nature.
In Madden’s workshop, on one wall, he has put up several different maps. The newest is a map of China, where he has recently visited. Leaning against the same wall is a rolled-up U.S. flag between other approximately stick-shaped items. In the far corner, there’s a colorful jigsaw in the shape of a guitar leaning against the wall. Sitting on one table, slanted against the wall, is a simple, dark wood sign showing another seahorse saying “Par Pictures Puzzles” in a lighter shade. This is the same sign that was hung at Ware and Henriques’ studio when they worked in midtown Manhattan. They slipped at least one seahorse into every puzzle.
By 1936, after years dragging heavy suitcases around the city and collecting an eager and affluent clientele, life partners Ware and Henriques were able to move to their two-story penthouse location on 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. When most of the industry was working to make a cheaper product, Par looked to exploit the other end of the market by making high-quality, more rarefied puzzles. They built their reputation on complicated cuttings, rare and interesting prints, production quality, and personalized touches. Par Puzzles came to be known as the “Rolls-Royce of puzzles.” Their customers included: royalty, the Duke of Windsor; movie stars, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe; and business tycoons like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.
Madden goes to the corner of the room where he has boxes containing a filing system of envelopes filled with innumerable cut-outs for figural silhouettes. He plucks a small irregularly-shaped piece of paper from among the stacks. One of the personalized touches that Ware and Henriques developed was their figural silhouettes. They were able to cut some pieces of puzzles into recognizable figures. Over the years, they collected more and more unique figural silhouettes, some designed to customers’ wishes, some made for their own amusement.
Madden has very white hair and a neat moustache of the same color. His hair, ruddy cheeks, oval glasses, and smile give the impression that he is in some way related to Santa Claus, perhaps a cousin or a younger brother. No elves in this workshop, though. He goes to a wooden block with holes for storing blades. The many blades fan out like bristles on a brush. The sawdust is piled a little thicker here. He picks a blade. The blade is serrated and very thin, like an insect’s leg, inconspicuous against the pink of his fingers. Madden takes the blade to the first of three scroll saws. These scroll saws, while many parts have been replaced, are the same ones Henriques and Ware used in the 1930s.
During the 30s, Ware and Henriques did all the cutting themselves, but they had up to five assistants to help with delivery. One of these helpers was Arthur Gallagher. He started as a messenger for Par before serving in World War II. When he returned, he went back to Par, and they trained him in cutting and designing puzzles. Henriques died in 1972, and Ware passed the entire business onto Gallagher in 1974. He gave him all the saws, pictures, and the company’s mailing list. Gallagher moved the business to North Massapequa, close to his home in Long Island. Alone, he took on a reduced workload, a third of the number Henriques and Ware used to make.
In Long Island, Gallagher’s two elder sons became friends with the young John Madden. Madden, among his own seven brother and sisters, was “dead in the middle” in age. John grew up and, in his twenties, became a paper hanger in the city. In time and with his health failing, Gallagher chose to pass on the Par way to Madden. This family friend spent months teaching Madden all the intricacies of cutting puzzles, and before he passed away gave Madden the company with its pictures, the wood, and the same saws that Ware and Henriques used.
After Gallagher’s death, Madden continued to hang paper but made several puzzles for customers in his spare time. Now retired, Madden cuts far more puzzles. In the build-up to Christmas, he must work every day of the week to complete all the holiday orders on time (close to 45 in just three months). In these grueling months, John needs help from his son Justin. Justin works full time as a property manager in Manhattan, but on many weekends and over the holiday period, he will return to Long Island and help lighten his father’s load. He is the only person that John has passed his knowledge onto. Although John says that his son is “still learning, but don’t tell him that,” with a smile and an avuncular crinkle of his eyes, he hopes that Justin will continue making puzzles after he is unable to, perhaps even to Par’s 100th anniversary, and beyond.
Like everything else in the workshop, the old scroll saw has brown dust over its deep green color. One big metal arm, curved like a neck, holds a blade to a smooth plate with a hole at its center to accommodate the vibrating blade. The arm of the machine bends down close to the plate like a horse stooping to drink from water (or might that be more like a seahorse head?). Madden places the blade in the mouth of the machine. He takes the paper silhouette and places it on top of a flat piece of wood. He turns the machine on and puts the wood to the blade. By its sound and vibration against the wood, he instantly realises he has put the blade in upside down.
He stops the saw and turns the blade the right way before he begins to cut again. The blade becomes a blur. Madden starts pushing and pulling the piece of wood small distances around this blur, cutting smooth lines into the wood. His hands move as if he were making a collage with imaginary magazine cuttings, delicately spacing and re-spacing them. He continues to talk the entire time without pause.
Madden uses mahogany-backed 4-plywood as the base of his jigsaw puzzles, onto which he laminates the pictures. Once complete, the whole puzzle can be held up by one piece without falling apart. This is due to the intricate way all the pieces are cut with interlocking borders that hold each piece around it together. He can also plan small “puzzles within puzzles” to enhance the sense of accomplishment as a puzzler makes progress. Par provides a high level of personalization. One can ask for a specific image, and specific figural silhouettes cut into the image. You can even have your name or initials cut into the puzzles as a piece or pieces.
Madden finishes cutting in a minute or two. He picks up the piece and blows the dust off of it. He holds it up to the light. It’s a human figure in tails holding out a handkerchief. For every puzzle, he cuts every piece individually. A full jigsaw can take between one and two weeks to make.
To this day, the most discerning puzzle enthusiast know to come to Par for their puzzles. Among Madden’s more notable clients are the Bush family. He [fondly] recalls Barbara Bush haggling with him over the price, claiming that because her husband had begun to work for the government they didn’t have a lot of money.
Letter from First Lady Barbara Bush to John Madden on The White House letterhead.
Madden is very proud of the heritage of Par. While the techniques handed down to him are older and the process more laborious than some modern methods, he believes that Par make the best puzzles. Speaking of other puzzle makers, he says “they’re all trying to do what Par does,” not derisively, just in an assured way, with the same smile and crinkle in his eyes.
John Madden’s New York State of Mind is “Best of Everything.”