Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Chinese Wallet / Jacob's Ladder
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the flexing toys known as the Chinese Wallet and Jacob's Ladder. These are of interest to the historian of paperfolding because they are precursors of flexagons.

The Chinese Wallet

The earliest known evidence for the existence of the Chinese Wallet comes from a description in the manuscript De Viribus Quantitatis by Luca Pacioli which was written around 1502. According to the dissertation 'Luca Pacioli and his 1500 book De Viribus Quantitatis' (hich can be found at http://repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/18435/1/ulfc113829_tm_Tiago_Hirth.pdf), 'Pacioli describes how to construct the device with two wooden slabs and 3 straps, forming a “wallet”. Place a straw in between the single strip and close and open the wallet again in the other possible way to produce the straw trapped by the other two straps. Pacioli tells how old people entertain infants with this device.


The same device features in a painting by the Italian painter Bernadino Luini (1470 - 1533) which according to David Singmaster ('Some Early Topological Puzzles' in Recreational mathematics magazine number 3 March 2015) can be dated to around 1520.


In the same article reference is made to another picture showing a Chinese Wallet, this time by the Venetian painter Bernadino Licinio (1485-c1549) which is said to date to around 1524.


Diagrams showing how such a wallet can be made appeared in 'La Premiere partie des subtiles et plaisant inventions' by Jean Prevost, which was published in Lyons in 1584.


The Chinese Wallet design also appears in 'Deliciae physico-mathematicae, oder mathematische und philosophische Erquickstunden' by Daniel Schwenter, which was first published in 1636.


And in the 1686 edition of Simon Witgeest's 'Het natuurlyk tover-boek', published in Amsterdam. I have not been able to check whether or not is also appeared in the 1682 edition.


A primitive, and unnecessarily complicated, version of the Chinese Wallet appears as The Magic Pocketbook (Die zwei magichen Brieftaschen) in 'Hanky Panky' by W H Cremer, Jun, which was published by John Camden Hotten in London in 1872. The fact that this effect is given a German name in brackets, which other effects are not, may mean that the author has taken this from an earlier German source.

Jacob's Ladder

Threre is an entry in David Singmaster's Chronology of Recreational Mathematics that 'c1850 Jacob's Ladder toys appear' but no supporting evidence is given. However in his article 'Some Early Topological Puzzles' in Recreational mathematics magazine number 3 march 2015' he does provide a picture of a Jacob's Ladder type toy which has four parts (and a handle) which he calls a 'Hand Operated Game of Changing-Pictures' and which is said to date from c1852.

The first known publication of Jacob's Ladder was in Scientific American, v6, n15, p227, published on 12th October 1889. No information as to the origin of this toy is given in the article. The article can be found online at https://archive.org/stream/scientific-american-1889-10-12/scientific-american-v61-n15-1889-10-12#page/n3/mode/2up


Jacob's Ladder also appears in 'Le Livre des Amusettes' by Toto, which was published in Paris by Charles Mendel in 1899.