A paperfolding paradise
The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell
page attempts to record what is known about the origin
and history of paper boats. Please contact me if you know
any of this information is incorrect or if you have any
other information that should be added. Thank you.
The 'traditional paper boat' (identified on this site as the Paper Boat) was known in both Western Europe and Japan at an early date.
In Japan it first appears in the 'Ranma Zushiki', a Japanese book of prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers, by Hayato Ohoka, which was published in 1734, contains a print that shows a group of folded paper objects, among which is the traditional Paper Boat.
In Western Europe it first appears in an illustration in a version of the book 'Tractatus de Spaera Mundi' written by John Holywood, an English mathematician and astronomer, who is also known as Johannes de Sacrobosco, which was published in Venice in 1490.
More information about the history of the Paper Boat can be found here.
The equally traditional paper boat designs known as the Chinese Junk / Gondola or Takarabune were also known in both Western Europe and Japan at an early date.
'Origami from the Classics' by Satoshi Takagi, published in 1993, shows a drawing of a kimono decorated with the takarabune which dates from 1704.
The earliest known drawing of the design in Europe occurs in the Dutch picture book "Hanenpoot" which Willem Bilderchijk wrote and illustrated for his young son Julius Willem in around 1806.
More information about the history of these designs can be found here.
On Monday October 24th 1808 Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister Cassandra which included two references to paper ships, of some undefined kind.
'We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed;'
'While I write now, George is most industriously making and naming paper ships, at which he afterwards shoots with horse-chestnuts brought from Steventon on purpose;'
Information provided by Dawn Tucker.
It seems more likely to me that these were Paper Boats rather than Chinese Junks.
According to his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) had a passion for folding and sailing paper boats which he made from any paper available at hand including letters and the flyleaves of books. There is no direct evidence that these were Paper Boats rather than Chinese Junks but it seems likely that this was the case. Several pages of Volume 1 of Hogg's 'The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley' published in 1858, were devoted to describing this fascination, which seems to have almost amounted to an obsession.
In July 1820 Shelley wrote a poem 'Letter to Lady Gisborne' which includes the lines: 'And in this bowl of quicksilver - for I / Yield to the impulse of an infancy / Outlasting manhood - I have made to float / A rude idealism of a paper boat:'
Hans Christian Anderson's children's fantasy story 'Den standhaftige soldat' (in English 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier') includes reference to a paper boat. It was first published on October 2, 1838, along with "The Wild Swans" and "The Daisy", as part of the anthology 'Fairy Tales Told to Children New Collection'. In the story two children make a boat out of newspaper, put the tin soldier in it and send it sailing away down the gutter. The paper boat eventually sinks when it fills with water. I have not been able to find whether the original illustrations showed this aspect of the story, and if so which type of boat they showed, although from the fact it was folded from newspaper it seems likely that it was a Paper Boat. The way the boat is folded does not appear to be explained, which argues that Hans Christian Anderson probably believed it would already be familiar to his young readers.
'Joujoux En Papier' by Tom Tit, which was published in Paris by Paul Lechevalier in 1924, contained diagrams for 'La Peniche', a paper boat folded from a rectangle.