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.

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.

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

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.

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.

John Smith (http://www.nickrobinson.info/clients/smithy/history_notes.php) provides quotations from 'The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley Vol. 1, J.M. Dent 1933, Pages 62 and 63 by Thomas Jefferson Hogg, originally published in 1858, which refer to Shelley's apparent obsession with the construction and sailing of paper boats. So for instance, 'He had not yet learned that art, from which he afterwards derived so much pleasure - the construction of paper boats' and 'So long as his paper lasted, he remained riveted to the spot, fascinated by this peculiar amusement; all waste paper was rapidly consumed, then the cover of letters, next letters of little value ..." The construction of these paper boats is referred to as 'twisting 'morsels' of paper into likenesses of boats'. There is no direct evidence that these boats were traditional paper boats but, despite the reference to twisting rather than folding, it seems likely that this is the case.

Cassell's 'Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes', published in 1882, contained instructions for making the Paper Boat along with several other traditional designs. The design begins from a rectangle aand has a small sail.

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.

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.

The traditional Paper Boat is the basis of the now well-known story of the Captain's Shirt where boat ends of thye boat aand 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.