Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Salt Cellar / Fortune Teller / Cootie Catcher

This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the traditional design known as the Salt Cellar, or, more recently, as the Fortune Teller or Cootie Catcher (particularly in the USA). There are many other names as well, some of which, such as Chatterbox, reflect the use of the design as a talking puppet. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other important information that should be added. Thank you.

Like many other traditional designs the Salt Cellar is probably much older than the earliest evidence of it suggests. As far as I know it is first mentioned in a list of paperfolds suitable for use in kindergartens, on the Froebelian model, in the book Manual Pratique des Jardins d'Enfants" edited by J-F Jacobs, which was written in French and published in Brussels in 1859. It is also mentioned, 'this form is called 'a salt cellar' and may be used as such ...' on page 265 of the'The Kindergarten Guide', by Maria Kraus-Bolte, and published in 1881, in a section on paperfolding designs within the Froebelian tradition entitled 'The Seventh Occupation'.

In his article 'History of Origami in the East and the West before Interfusion', published in 'Origami 5: Fifth International Meeting of Origami, Science, Mathematics and Education', Koshiro Hatori asserts that, ''Many of the European origami models contained in Krause-Boelte's book are not included in contemporary Japanese records. The ... salt cellar (cootie catcher) ... were all born in Europe and imported into Japan along with the kindergarten system.'

The salt cellar design appears in Fun with Paperfolding by Murray and Rigney, first published in 1928, as the Salt Cellar, and in Margaret Campbell's Paper Toy Making, first published in 1936, as the Picnic Salt Cellar.

Paper Magic by Robert Harbin, published in 1956, contains diagrams for two versions of the design, the classic version under the name Salt Cellar and a second version called the Magic Colour Changer which is manipulated in the same way as the Fortune Teller.

In the USA the salt cellar is also known as the Cootie Catcher (although this name is also given to a version of the hexaflexagon, something which can, and does, cause confusion when the two designs are conflated). In his article 'Martin Gardner and Paperfolding', available in the Lister List, David Lister states that Martin Gardner contributed a regular monthly column to Hugard's Magic Monthly between March 1951 and March 1958. These columns were later brought together in book form as the “Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic”, published by Magic Inc. of Chicago in 1978. David says that 'the section on Paper Folding, as such, is eight pages long' and that 'The models mentioned or reproduced include ... the Salt Cellar in its various forms of "bug catcher" and "fortune-teller"'. I have not been able to access the text of Hugard's magic monthly but indices available on-line show that there were articles by Martin Gardner on Paper Folding in the issues for Dec 1955 and Jan 1956. This appears to be the earliest known instance of mention of the salt cellar in its fortune teller and cootie catcher guises.

In their 1959 book 'Lore and Language of Schoolchildren' folklorists Iona & Peter Opie mention the use of a salt cellar as a "Film Star Oracle". 'A sheet of clean paper about seven inches square (usually torn from an exercise book), is folded diagonally both ways to mark the centre and flattened out again. Each corner is folded into the centre and the whole paper is then turned over and laid on its face, and the four new corners are folded into the centre to make a 3 l/2-inch square. The paper is next turned face uppermost again and the names of four or more film stars are inscribed across each of the four squares which have been made, while the name of a flower is written in each of the eight triangles which have been formed on the back of the oracle. It is then opened by lifting up each of the four flaps and eight predictions . . . are written in each of the triangles corresponding to the names written on the other side. The corners are then folded back again to the centre. Next the paper is folded in half and in half again, to make a 1 3/4 inch square. This is then slightly opened out with the points held uppermost and the first finger and thumb of each hand are inserted into pockets, under the flaps which bear the film stars' names ...'

Folding Paper Puppets by Shari Lewis and Lillian Oppenheimer, published in 1962, contains a version of the Salt Cellar design which is made into a talking Cat puppet, attributed to Ligia Montoya, by the addition of drawn-on eyes. This is the first instance I can find of the salt cellar being used as a talking toy.

The design also appears as the Salt Cellar in Robert Harbin's follow up book, Secrets of Origami, published in 1963. The same author's Teach Yourself Origami, first published in 1968, and later retitled Origami: The Art of Paperfolding, but commonly known as Origami 1, contains both the basic Salt Cellar and the Colour Changer design from Paper Magic.

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