Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell

 

 
The Paper Boat
 
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the traditional origami design usually known simply as the Paper Boat (though, of course, there are also many other paper boats in origami). 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.

This design was known in both Western Europe and Japan at an early date.

In Japan

This print by the Japanese designer Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) shows ladies folding paper. Among the designs they have folded is the Paper Boat (the lady at the back is holding it in her left hand). This print probably dates to around 1720 but can be no later than 1750 when Nishikawa Sukenobu died.

The Paper Boat is easier to see in this second print by the same designer which dates from the same period.

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'Ranma Zushiki', a Japanese book of prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers, by Hayato Ohoka, published in 1734, contains a print that shows a group of folded paper objects, among which is the traditional paper boat.

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A paper boat is listed on page 24 of the Kan no mado (usually dated to 1845) as one of the designs omitted from the ms on the basis that they are already well known.

In Western Europe

A picture illustrating a solar eclipse which, quite oddly and incidentally, shows two traditional paper boats floating in a stylised sea, appears 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.

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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. The nature of how 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.

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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 vailable at hand including letters and the flyleaves of books. There is no direct evidence that these boats were traditional paper boats but it seems likely that this must have been 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.

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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:'

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The earliest diagrams that I am aware of for the Paper Boat occur in The Boy's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer Landells which was published in 1859 by Griffin and Farran in London and Shephard, Clark and Brown in Boston.

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A Paper Boat, made by an unnecessarily complicated method, appears in part two of 'The Kindergarten Guide' by Maria Kraus Boelte and John Kraus, which was published by E. Steiger and Company in New York in 1877.

The section from which this picture comes is introduced with the words 'The oblong is also used for paper-folding. Most of the Forms of Life derived from it were known before the days of our grandfathers.'

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Diagrams for the Paper Boat, under the title 'Le Bateau', appear in 'Un million de jeux et de plaisirs' by T de Moulidars, which was first published in 1880 and subsequently republished under the title 'Grande encyclopédie méthodique, universelle, illustrée, des jeux et des divertissements de l'esprit et du corps' and in Cassell's 'Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes', published in 1882, the paperfolding section of which was based on Moulidars book.

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John Smith also gives several references to Lewis Carroll folding 'fishing boats' out of paper to entertain children, the earliest of which is from 1890. However it is more likely that the design in question was the Chinese Junk rather than the traditional paper boat.

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This design appears in Margaret Campbell's Paper Toy Making, first published in 1936, as the Boat. Here the design begins from a rectangle and has a large sail.

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The traditional Paper Boat is the basis of the now well-known story of the Captain's Shirt where boat ends of the boat and the top of the sail are torn off the design at various stages in a story about a shipwreck and the remainder unfolded to show that the paper is now in the form of a rather tattered shirt. This story is often associated with Lillian Oppenheimer (1898 - 1992) but I do not know whether she invented it, and if she did, when that invention took place.