Origami Heaven

Origami Heaven is the website of paperfolding designer, author and illustrator David Mitchell


The Flapping Bird

This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the traditional origami design known as the Flapping Bird. There are, of course, many other flapping birds in the modern origami repertoire, but this is the only one that we know to be a traditional design. 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 earliest known publication of diagrams for this design, and also the earliest known reference of any kind, occurs on page 336 of issue 661 of the French magazine La Nature of 25th April 1885 where it is called 'oiseau mecanique en papier' (mechanical paper bird). The article includes a wood cut print showing how the bird was to be held in order to make it flap and the information that it originated with 'les prestidigitateurs japonais' (Japanese conjurors). Source: Article by Christophe Curat and Michel Grand, who discovered this early reference, in Le Pli 131. An English translation appears in British Origami 286.

The diagrams and the engraving were quickly republished in other countries. The Flapping Bird thus appeared in the USA as 'A Mechanical Bird Made of Paper' on p. 7921 of Scientific American, supplement no 486 of July 4, 1885 (information from Juan Gimeno), and in the UK on page 619 of 'The Boy's Own Paper' of June 19th 1886 (information from John Smith's site).

Thereafter references proliferate throughout Europe, although they all seem to ultimately depend on the La Nature article (for further details see article by Curat and Grand cited above).

The information that the Flapping Bird originated with Japanese conjurors is intriguing but cannot, at present, be confirmed from any other source. It would be easy to assume that since the Flapping Bird depends on the same base as the Tsuru it is a derivation of that design, but this is not necesssarily the case. Since the Flaapping Bird is simpler than the Tsuru the relationship could be the other way around. Equally the designs could have been discovered completely independently. There is, at present, no evidence that would enable us to choose between these various possibilities.

In his article on the origins of the Flapping Bird, available on the Lister List from the British Origami Society website, David Lister quotes Gershon Legman, who assembled a bibliography of books and articles about, and references to, paperfolding during the 1950s, as stating that the Flapping Bird was brought to the West by Japanese "presdigitators" (sic) in the 1870s or 1880s, and that "The Japanese jugglers would come to the footlights with a square of white paper already folded, the glare of the footlights preventing the folds, already in the paper, from being seen. Then, with a sudden crushing motion they would press the four points together, flip down the wings and the bird would be flapping prettily before the astounded audience." This information was culled from the Prologue to Dr. V. Solorzano Sagredo's "Papirolas 1er Manual" published in Buenos Aires in 1938, although David Lister points out that the Prologue was not by Solorzano, but by C A Leumann and was itself reproduced from an article in the newspaper "La Prensa" dated 15th November, 1936. It is not clear whether this is an imaginative embroidery of the simple statement in the La Nature article or information from some as yet undiscovered independent source.

According to his book 'Recollections of Tolstoy', as quoted in the Dictionary of National Biography, Aylmer Maude met the Russian writer LeoTolstoy in 1888, having been introduced to him by Peter Alekseyev, who was married to Maude's sister Lucy. Thereafter 'Maude was a frequent visitor, an admirer and friend, playing tennis and chess, enjoying long discussions, but not always agreeing with the great writer 30 years his senior. Tolstoy made return visits, getting to know Louise and the family, even showing the boys how to make "paper cockerels".' (Information from Wikipedia.)

In their article 'Leo Tolstoy and the Art of Origami' in British Origami 186, Misha Litvinov and Sergei Mamin mention another incident, this time from 1896, recorded by F D Polenov in his book 'At the Foothills of the Rainbow', Moscow, 1987, in which the writer, then ten years old, happened to be travelling in the same railway carriage as Leo Tolstoy. He records that 'He (Tolstoy) took a piece of paper and began doing something to it. What came out was a bird which flapped its wings when you pulled at its tail.'.

In the same article the authors quote, presumably in translation, from the first draft of Tolstoy's essay 'What is Art?' (Leo Tolstoy - The Complete Works, v.30, Moscow, 1951), 'This winter a lady of my acquaintance taught me how to make cockerels by folding and inverting paper in a certain way, so that when you pull them by their tails they flap their wings. This invention comes from Japan. Since then I have been in the habit of making these cockerels for children.'

And not only for children , it would seem. The pianist Alexander Gol'denveizer recorded another episode, again from 1896, in his memoir Vblizi Tolstogo / Talks with Tolstoi, translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf in 1923. 'Once I met Lev Nikolaevich in the street. He again asked me to walk with him. We were somewhere near the Novinsky Boulevard, and Lev Nikolaevich suggested we should take the tram. We sat down and took our tickets. Lev Nikolaevich asked me: "Can you make a Japanese cockerel?" "No." "Look." Tolstoy took his ticket and very skillfully made it into a rather elaborate cockerel, which, when you pulled its tail, fluttered its wings.An inspector entered the car and began checking the tickets. Lev Nikolaevich, with a smile, held out the cockerel to him and pulled its tail. The cockerel fluttered its wings. But the inspector, with the stern expression of a business man who has no time for trifling, took the cockerel, unfolded it, looked at the number, and tore it up. Lev Nikolaevich looked at me and said: "Now our little cockerel is gone..."

There is an apparent discrepancy in the dates between the sources here but it is not a significant one since both 1888 and 1896 are after the La Nature publication, and thus there is no need to posit an alternative source. It is quite conceivable that Tolstoy's female acquaintance's knowledge of the design was derived from the La Nature article..

But what were Tolstoy's paper cockerels? Litvinov and Mamin mention that several paper birds are carefully preserved under glass in the museum devoted to the work of the painter Vasily Polenov (father of the ten year old boy mentioned above) near Tula in Russia. There are four of these paper birds in the museum and they are indeed Flapping Birds of the traditional kind, three quite well folded and one that is less well folded and looks indeed as though it could quite possibly be the work of a 10 year old boy who might never have folded paper before. I have not seen the birds themselves but I have seen a photograph of them kindly supplied by the museum. The larger of the three well-folded birds has writing on which says,'November 18, 1896. Made by L.N.Tolstoy in a train car going to Moscow. Gift for Mother.' I find it amazing that a flapping bird folded for a 10 year old boy on a train in 1896 has survived in this way.

Litvinov and Mamin also give the following passage from the same first draft of 'What is Art?' 'The person who invented these cockerels must have been enchanted by his own discovery, and the joy is transferred to others. And that is why the making of a paper cockerel, strange as it may seem, is real art. I cannot refrain from observing that this was the only new work in the sphere of paper cockerels that I have encountered during the last sixty years. At the same time, the poems, novels and musical opuses that I have read during the same period run to hundreds, if not thousands. This is because cockerels do not matter, you might say, whereas poems and symphonies do. But I think the reason lies in the fact that it is much easier to write a poem, paint a picture, or compose a symphony than to invent a new cockerel.' Unfortunately these sentiments did not make it into the final version of his essay, which is undoubtedly the poorer for their omission.

In the Preface to Margaret Campbell's Paper Toy Making, first published in 1936, which includes diagrams for the design as The Flying Bird, her son, Roy, wrote: 'This hobby is full of homely wisdom. But it also has among its fanciers several very outstanding intellects: for example, Leonardo, Shelley and Unamuno. I can quite imagine that the traditional flying bird might have been one of the lighter butterfly-fancies of Leonardo's brain when he was suddenly struck with the beauty or intelligence of a child and turned aside to amuse him.' It hardly needs to be said that there is no evidence to back this whimsical notion up.

Finally, it is worth noting that, in 1946, the Flapping Bird became the first origami design to be featured in the Rupert Annual.