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Before television, before video, before the computer, they were a popular distraction. Piece together jigsaw puzzles and you could find a lovely landscape or a map of the world.

Simple fun for a simpler time.But puzzles still abound, and their fans are turning up for a revealing museum exhibit that traces the history of the pastime.

Puzzles on display at the Museum of our National Heritage include a four-piece children's puzzle crafted in the 1880s and a 2,500-piece puzzle made in the 1940s.

The later puzzle portrays people disembarking from a ship near the white cliffs of Dover in Britain. A puzzle in the exhibit from the 1850s forms a scene from the antislavery classic, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." One from 1909 shows George Washington crossing the Delaware.

"Just about all our history and pop culture shows up on puzzles," said Anne Williams, a professor at Bates College and a puzzles expert who owns more than 5,000 puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles, named for the saw that was used to cut them, were first manufactured in the United States in the mid-19th century, mainly for children.

In 1907, they became an attraction for adults as well, when a Boston woman whose name is no longer remembered pasted magazine pictures onto wood, cut them up and sold them to benefit local hospitals.

In 1909, Parker Brothers, the Salem-based game manufacturer, stopped producing all of its other games to concentrate on puzzles.

"There was no radio and TV, and jigsaws were a social event," Williams said.

Puzzles where the pieces can be reassembled into a specified shape existed as far back as ancient Greece. But it wasn't until 1766 that Englishman John Spilsbury cut the first jigsaw puzzle out of wood. It sits under a glass case in the entrance to the museum's exhibit.

The first jigsaw puzzles were made of fine mahogany and were the playthings of rich children. A puzzle cost about one pound sterling, more than the average person made in a week.

Skilled cutters, many of them women, sawed each puzzle into intricate, interlocking shapes. Some pieces were in the shape of hearts, arrows and even dancing ballerinas.

Jigsaw puzzles have changed with the times: In the 1930s, they bore cartoons, Norman Rockwell pictures of wholesome Boy Scouts, radio and movie stars and nostalgic snow-covered scenes.

Recent puzzles show everything from the space shuttle to a sarcastic two-faced puzzle with former President Richard Nixon on one side and former Vice President Spiro Agnew on the other.