Cadaco Cluster Puzzles of the 1960s and 1970s
I never owned a Cluster Puzzle when I was kid, but it was carved into my memory as strongly as Mad Magazine and Wacky Packages. My best friend's family had one that they kept in a corner hutch in their kitchen. The two things I remember the most from those days, besides his mom's good cooking, was playing the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game (those skeletons and that coffin were so cool!) and putting together this very strange picture puzzle illustrated with all kinds of bizarre characters.
About fifteen years later I'm at an outdoor antique market filled with hundreds of vendors displaying goods in a huge field. I looked down at one display and saw a small blue plastic box with a clear lid. I picked up the box. "I know you!" It was the Cadaco Cluster Puzzle No. 4 - "Make-Up". It's funny how things stay shoved in the back of your head and then get pushed right back up front again. It was even the same puzzle! I started collecting them online and today, I have a fairly complete collection with a couple rare items, variations, and all six from the original series. But who was the master-mind behind these great puzzles?
Alex D. Palmer, engineering tool designer and technical artist, first conceived of his puzzles in 1964. The puzzles were similar to the interlocking artwork of M.C. Escher and tessellation art. Produced under the name Jumble-Fits, Palmer sold and manufactured the puzzles through his own corporation, Tek Method Company in Chicago, Illinois. He started out by going from store to store, contacting catalog distributors, and even enlisting his son Kelvin to sell them door-to-door. The business was very small with packaging and office functions all happening out of Palmer's home.
In 1966, he approached Cadaco, Inc., in Chicago about licensing his puzzles. Cadaco manufactured a wide variety of board games and puzzles. Palmer negotiated a distribution and royalty deal and, in 1966, Cadaco released Cluster Puzzles to the world with the original line-up of six puzzles: No. 1 - "Animals", No. 2 - "Figments", No. 3 - "Sports", No. 4 - "Make-Up", No.5 - "Doodles", and No. 6 - "Whimsies".
Each puzzle came with a humorous Hint Card that would help the puzzle-challenged individual figure out each scene. The Hint Cards were every bit as fun as the puzzles themselves! With wacky character names such as Alec Zandimer Plerp, Lumpy Long Dog, Erpfrog, Hairspray Harriet, Shmonster, and Mr. Lemonsuck, Alex Palmer created an entire world, not just a puzzle. These weren't puzzles that you put together and said, "That was fun. I'm done." No, once done, you looked at them again and again, studying each character and relishing all the details.
Throughout the remainder of the sixties up to 1988, Cadaco continued to produce and sell various incarnations of Palmer's Cluster Puzzles. Cadaco, like many other big toy companies, eventually was sold, subdued and now forever gone. There's a really good in-depth article about the history of Cadaco here.
Alex D. Palmer passed away at the age of 92 in 2013. His son Kelvin Palmer runs The A. Z. Plerp Company, a website devoted to the collecting and historical information of Cluster Puzzles. You can learn a lot there. He also offers for sale, a very informative and fully illustrated book, "The Collector's Guide To Cluster Puzzles of the 1960s and 1970s". If you want to learn more about these unique puzzles, see some original sketches and more, then pick up a copy of the book!
And remember, "intelligent adults can assemble the pieces in 30 minutes. Children 5 years old or more need only 15 minutes." Thank you, Alex D. Palmer, for putting some whimsy in the world.
I produce illustrations and creative idea solutions for toys, packaging, publishing and advertising. I'm also a writer and fine art painter.
• MFA, Syracuse University