Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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The Origins of Mirror & Wooden Panel Mazes

Jeff Saward

Plan and side view of a wooden maze given in Guth’s 1893 patent

Reprinted from Caerdroia 37 - 2008 - pp.4-12

(revised and updated, April 2012)

Part 2

Early Wooden Panel Mazes:

top left - “House of Trouble” wooden maze at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, USA, c.1902;

top right - detail from a 1904 postcard of the seafront at Roker, NE England, showing the “House of Many Troubles;”

right - “House of Many Troubles” wooden maze at Wolverhampton Art & Industrial Exhibition, 1902

Below right - Wooden maze, Saturno Parque, Barcelona, Spain, c.1910

Photos: Labyrinthos Archive

Plan and side view of the
Doolhof-Maatschappij 1896 patent

Wooden Panel Mazes

While it might be assumed that wooden panel mazes, also known as fence mazes or simply as panel mazes, are very much a modern invention, having sprung to widespread popular attention in the 1980’s, the reality is that their origin lies much further back in time.

A tantalising reference to a labyrinthine structure “containing recess within recess, room within room, turning within turning,” built by Louis of Bourbourg in c.1195 at Ardres in Flanders “with a skill in woodwork little different from that of Daedalus,” was presumably constructed of fencing or trellis-work.(17) Likewise, a record of repairs to a maison dédalus at Hesdin, France, in 1338, and several similarly named structures from mid-14th century France give few direct clues to the materials or designs employed, but hint at labyrinths constructed from wood in some fashion.

The recent popularity of mazes formed from either timber panelling or pre-fabricated fence panels slotted between concrete pillars, can rightly be traced to the pioneering construction of a panel maze at Wanaka in New Zealand by Stuart Landsborough in 1973.(18) Wooden panel mazes, based on Landsborough’s design concept became extraordinarily popular in Japan during the mid-1980’s, and the concept soon spread worldwide with examples built elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia, the USA and Europe. Various examples survive from this initial period of popularity, including the now-historic example at Wanaka, and they continue to be built to this day as stand-alone features, at funfairs and other attractions. Rapidly constructed, they can be opened to the public on completion to get a speedy return on investment costs, unlike traditional hedge mazes that need to grow for some years before the public can be admitted.

However, as with mirror mazes, there were also a number of mazes constructed during the 1890’s and early 1900’s that employed timber construction and a certain amount of pre-fabrication, likewise usually built at exhibition grounds, funfairs and seaside resorts in both the USA and Europe. As with the mirror mazes, there were several patents granted for their designs and construction, and fortunately a few photographs of the resulting mazes preserved on early postcards to provide us with evidence of their existence.

While the popularity of these early wooden mazes appears not to have extended much beyond the first decade of the 20th century, they were clearly the forerunners of the familiar modern wooden fence and panel mazes by the best part of 75 years.

Jeff Saward, Thundersley, England; February 2008

Updated April 2012


17. Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990, p.106-107.

18. Landsborough, Stuart. “The Great Maze at Wanaka” Caerdroia 25 (1992), pp.14-16.

19. Patent granted by the United States Patent Office: No.496604, May 2, 1893.

20. Patent granted by the Swiss Patent Office: No.11757, January 21, 1896.

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Merlin’s Magical Maze
Newquay, England - a modern wooden panel maze

Photo: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Two early patents for wooden panel mazes are of particular note. The first, granted to Ferdinand Guth, another subject of Austria-Hungary resident in New York, in May 1893, describes and illustrates a rectangular “labyrinth which affords great amusement and numerous novel complications… constructed with a series of walls forming passages and a number of entrances and one outlet and a series of doors arranged in said passage so as to deceive the person attempting to leave the labyrinth.”(19) The specifications call for the walls of the passages to be constructed from timber planks five to six feet high, and the design incorporates a door that only opens in one direction (K) and two revolving doors that give the appearance of blocked passages when in their closed positions (b). A viewing platform above the three entrances and a pole with a watch-tower at the centre complete the remarkable construction. Despite the ingenuity of the design, to date, a maze of this design actually being built has not been recorded.

The second patent of interest, issued in Switzerland in January 1896, although presumably also patented elsewhere in Europe around the same time, was granted to the Naamlooze Vennootschap Doolhof-Maatschappij (roughly translated as “The Labyrinth Company”), a limited company based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.(20) Shares issued by the company in Amsterdam in November 1893 suggest they had already been active for a few years before the Swiss patent was granted, but their product, detailed and illustrated in the patent, is of considerable interest.

The maze design itself draws heavily on the Dutch origins of the company. Its circular form is essentially the same as the hedge maze at Paterswolde, and therefore similar to a number of other hedge mazes in the Netherlands, all of which are based on design of Hampton Court hedge maze, popular in both the British Isles and the Netherlands, as well as elsewhere worldwide since the late 17th century onwards. The construction of the maze from wooden fencing planks, arranged in a series of concentric circles, with a viewing pavilion raised on pillars at the centre reached by a spiral staircase, and with a raised walkway and stairs to provide an exit, is both dramatic and advanced for its time. However, unlike Guth’s patent, it would appear that the capital raised by the Doolhof-Maatschappij allowed them to put their design into production.

Once again, postcards from the early 1900’s provide tangible evidence of wooden mazes probably built by the Doolhof-Maatschappij, or to their licensed design. To date, four examples have been found, at Wolverhampton and Roker in England, in the Saturno Parque in Barcelona, Spain and another at Old Orchard Beach in Maine, USA. All are essentially of very similar design and three are called “House of Trouble” or “House of Many Troubles” - possibly a trade name for the product. The construction details shown in these early photographs suggests that they may have been partly pre-fabricated and supplied in ‘kit-form,’ especially the central pavilions and the fence sections forming the walls of the maze.

Although relatively inexpensive and essentially quick and easy to build, their maintenance must have entailed fairly high upkeep costs. Unlike the mirror mazes from the same period, none of these early wooden fence mazes have survived; indeed the example constructed at Wolverhampton was only in place for the duration of the Art & Industrial Exhibition during the summer of 1902. Their presence at the seaside attractions of Old Orchard Beach (c.1902?) and Roker (1904), and at the fairground of the Saturno Park (c.1910?), suggests that information on more examples might be found in archival trade directories and publicity literature of the period.