A paperfolding paradise
The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell
|A Timeline of Paperfolding History|
timeline is a work in progress.
Further significant events in paperfolding history will be added in due course. Suggestions for such significant events, especially early events, that ought to be recorded here are welcomed.
Where I record the earliest mention or illustration of a paperfolding design in the historical record this is to the best of my current knowledge and belief. This information may well change with further research as earlier instances come to light. If you already know of an early instance then please contact me with details of the evidence and I will update the timeline accordingly.
By paper in this timeline I mean any flat thin sheet made from cellulose fibres which are held together by chemical bonds. Card or cardboard is simply thick paper.
By folding I mean any change of direction induced by any means in the flat plane of the paper.
Paper is not, of course, the oldest foldable material. Foodstuffs such as dough, leaves and plant stems, animal skins and leather, cloth and felt, and metals were all folded long before we have any record of the folding of paper. Paper, however, folds in a very different way to these other materials. While paper will take a soft fold, like cloth or leather, it will also take a hard fold, the line of which is retained when the fold is opened out. When a soft fold in paper is completely flattened some of the fibres and/or some of the bonds between the fibres along the resulting folded edge are damaged or broken allowing a hard fold to form. If the paper is opened out this line of damage can be seen as a crease. This crease forms a line of weakness which will act as a hinge allowing the paper to be refolded, then opened out again, along the same line of weakness. This folding and opening out can be repeated many times without obvious additional damage occurring and consequently without the paper separating into two parts, as metal, or leaves, for instance would be likely to.
We do not know when, where, or by whom paper was first invented, or whether it was invented accidentally or as the result of a deliberate experimental process. Nor do we know whether, if it was the result of a deliberate experimental process, it was intended to be a medium for writing or painting on, wrapping with, or something else entirely. We do not even know whether paper was invented just once in one place or several times independently in several places. What we do know, however, is that the earliest evidence for the existence and use of paper comes from China, and that we can trace the spread of the knowledge of how to make and use it from there to the rest of the civilised world.
Both paper itself and objects made of paper are ephemeral and the record we have of them at an early date relies largely on their chance survival or their mention or appearance in much less ephemeral sources such as books, fabrics, drawings and paintings. Like paper itself, it is likely that many of the paperfolding ideas and designs featured in this timeline are much older than the earliest evidence for their existence. Unfortunately, of course, we cannot know, even approximately, how much older they might actually be.
While this timeline is about the folding of paper I have also included some events relating to the folding of other materials where these are particularly relevant to the development of the story. I have also, unashamedly, concentrated on the way in which paperfolding has, in recent centuries, come to be used for mathematical, scientific, educational and recreational purposes, without, I hope, forgetting that most folding of paper was originally done, and indeed still is done, for purely practical purposes.
Sources of information are given on the more specific subject pages to which this timeline links.
8BC - China: Date of the earliest known fragment of paper, approximately 10 centimeters square and made from linen fibres, which was discovered during the restoration of an ancient garrison near the Yumen Pass at Dunhuang in northwest China. It has been written upon and is likely to have been part of a letter.
312-13- Iran: Most likely date of a group of five almost complete letters written in the Sogdian language, each of which had been folded several times, which were found in a ruined watchtower in Iran on the ancient Chinese frontier wall.
1008 - Japan: Written around this date, the Tale of Genji makes frequent references to letters being folded or unfolded, for instance 'The Gosechi dancer, perhaps a little precocious, was delighted with the letter, which was on delicate blue paper very tastefully folded with papers of several colors.'
1100 - Japan: The oldest surviving kawahori, a pleated folding fan made of paper, the remains of which were found in the village of Akitsu in Japan, was made around this date.
1440 -The Netherlands: Illustration of the surprisingly sophisticated cut-and-fold Catherine of Cleves box appears at the bottom of a page devoted to St Agatha, in the magnificent Flemish illustrated manuscript known as the Hours of Catherine of Cleves.
1490 - Venice: Publication of an edition 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 contains a picture illustrating a solar eclipse. The picture shows two paper boats floating in a stylised sea.
1502 - Italy: Approximate date of the manuscript De Viribus Quantitates by Luca Pacioli, possibly produced in collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci, which gives the first known descriptions of the Chinese Wallet, the Cherries Puzzle, three methods of sealing a letter without wax, one of which seems to be the Chickenwire Letterfold and another a precursor of the Love Knot Paperfold, explains how to cook in a frying pan made of folded paper and also gives a method of constructing an accurate right angle, without using compasses, by folding a sheet of paper twice.
1520 - Italy: Around this date a child playing with a Chinese Wallet is shown in a painting by the Italian painter Bernadino Luini.
1537 to 1603 - Japan: The oldest known representation of the Orizuru ( or paper crane) on a kosuka, a decorative panel intended to be attached to the hilt or sheath of a sword, can be reliably dated to this period.
1584 - England: Description of the magic trick now normally known as the Buddha Papers in Book 13, chapter xxvi of 'The discoverie of witchcraft' by Reginald Scot, Esquire.
1606 - England: In his tragedy 'Macbeth' Shakespeare wrote of Lady Macbeth 'Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upont, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.' This is the only mention of paperfolding in Skakespeare. It was common practice at that time to fold a sheet of paper in half before beginning to write a document or a letter.
1614 - England: First performance of John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi, the ms for which contains the words 'Our bodies are weaker than those Paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in ...' which is often taken as a reference to the Waterbomb but could equally refer to some other, possibly now unknown, design.
1629 - Italy: Publication of 'Trattato delle piegature' by Mattia Giegher, the earliest known work on the folding of complex table decorations from starched paper napkins.
1636 - Germany: Publication of 'Deliciae physico-mathematicae, oder mathematische und philosophische Erquickstunden' by Daniel Schwenter, which contains the earliest known publication of the challenge of finding a way of standing a strip of paper on edge (which is solved by folding it in half).
1676 - England: The earliest known description of Troublewit is published in the book 'Sports and Pastimes: or, Sport for the City, and Pastime for the Country; With a touch of Hocus Pocus, or Leger-demain: Fitted for the delight and recreation of Youth' by John Clark, at the Bible and Harp in West-Smithfield, London.
1680 - Japan: Short poem by Iharu Saikaku 'Rosei-ga yume-no cho-wa orisue' in the 'Ittyuya Dokugin Onsenku" (4000 Haikus Recited Alone All Day and Night) which can be translated as 'The butterflies in a beggar's dream would be folded paper.' This is often taken as a reference to the Ocho and Mecho - female and male butterflies - made from folded paper - which are used to decorate sake kettles or containers during traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies.
1682 - Japan: Iharu Saikaku's book 'The Life of an Amorous Man' refers to the hero, Yonosuke, making 'a pair of birds with folded paper' and 'a pair of paper flowers attached to stems'. The specific designs referred to cannot be identified.
1697 - Japan: A scrapbook album of folded paper tsutsumi, including ocho and mecho butterflies, held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, can be dated to the third month of 1697. The album served as the initiation into the art of origata (an early word for origami) for Kikuchi Fujiwara no Takehide by a master of the Ogasawara school of etiquette.
1704 - Japan: Drawing of a kimono decorated with drawings of the takara-bune (similar to the paperfold now known as the Chinese Junk). Source 'Origami from the Classics' by Satoshi Takagi, published in 1993.
1720 - Japan: Around this date Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) produced two prints showing ladies folding paper which show the Paper Boat, the Blow-Up Frog, Komoso, the Sanbo and an otherwise unknown One-Piece Cube.
1721 - Japan: Publication of the book 'Wakoku Chiyekurabe' (Mathematical Contests) by Kan Chu Sen which includes the earliest known example of a fold and one cut puzzle.
1734 - Japan: Publication of 'Ranma Zushiki' by Hayato Ohoka which contains prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers. Among these is a print that shows a group of folded paper objects, including the Orizuru (the Crane), Komoso, the Paper Boat, the Sanbo on Legs and the Tematebako, a modular cube developed from six Menko.
1759 - Germany: Publication of 'Onomatologia curiosa artificiosa et magica oder ganz natürliches Zauber-lexicon' which contains instructions for several paperfolding designs including a primitive form of the Paper Banger.
1763 - Germany: By this date square Patenbriefs / Baptismal Certificates were being folded into a double blintz form, possibly to enclose gifts of money from a godparent.
1764 - Japan: Writing of 'Hoketsuki' (wrapping and tying) by Ise Sadatake, also sometimes called the 'Tsutsumi-no Ki', a book about the folding of tsutsumi or ceremonial paper wrappers for food and flowers in the tradition of the Ogasawara school of etiquette.
1769 - USA: By this date puzzle purses were being decorated as love letters in Philadelphia (the practice having probably been brought to the USA by German immigrants).
1797 - Japan: Publication of the Senbazuru Orikata, a book of origami designs, woodcuts and poetry. The designs are created by cutting slits in large squares to divide them into several, or many, smaller, but not completely separate, squares and then folding each of these smaller squares into a paper crane. The cranes remain connected by beak, legs, or wingtip when the design is complete.
1800 - England: A painting by John Hill shows two carpenters in a workshop wearing Carpenters Hats created by folding paper.
1806 - The Netherlands: The earliest known drawing of the paperfold now known as the Chinese Junk occurs in the Dutch picture book "Hanenpoot" which Willem Bilderchijk wrote and illustrated for his young son Julius Willem.
1820 - England: 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. There is no direct evidence that these boats were traditional paper boats but it seems likely that this must have been the case. In 1820 Shelley wrote 'Letter to Lady Gisborne', a poem which included 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:'
1826 - Germany: Mention in Friedrich Froebel's book 'The Education of Man' of two children folding a dwelling house from a large sheet of cardboard, while others are busy folding from smaller sheets of paper all kinds of furniture - tables, chairs, sofas, beds, writing-desk, picture-frames, looking-glasses, etc.
1833 - USA: Publication of 'The Girl's Own Book' by Lydia Marie Child which contains the earliest known mention of / diagrams for the Fold and Cut Latin Cross, the Fold and Cut Paper Honeycomb and the Froebel / German Star and advises that 'There are a variety of things made for the amusement of small children by cutting and folding paper; such as boats, soldiers' hats, birds, chairs, tables, baskets, &c. but they are very difficult to describe; and any little girl who wishes to make them, can learn of some obliging friend in a very few moments.'
1837 - Ukraine: The Playing Card Cube first appears in the historical record in a painting by K. Pavlov (1792 - 1852).
1838 - Denmark: Publication of Hans Christian Anderson's children's fantasy story 'Den standhaftige soldat' (in English 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier') which includes reference to a paper boat, the design of which is not identified.
1850 - Germany: Around this date Friedrich Froebel included paper folding as an occupation in his Kindergarten syllabus.
1859 - Belgium / France: Publication of 'Manuel Pratique des Jardins D'Enfants de Friedrich Froebel' which included a list, though unfortunately not illustrations, of 55 recreational paperfolding designs. Not all these designs can be definitively identified, but many that can appear here in the historical record for the first time. These include the Salt Cellar and the Pepperpot, the Boat with Sail, the Vase, the Double Boat, the Solid Box (an un-unfoldable design of surprising sophistication), the Gondola (the simpler form of the Chinese Junk developed from the windmill base), the Jacket and Trousers, and the Cross.
1859 - England / USA: Publication of 'The Boy's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer Landells which includes the earliest known diagrams for the Paper Boat, the Pyramidal Hat, the Catherine of Cleves Box, the Fold and Cut Paper Parachute and the fold and cut effect sometimes known as How to Climb Through a Playing Card.
1860 - England / USA: Publication of 'The Girl's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer and Alice Landells which includes the earliest appearance in the historical record of the Chain of Dolls and the Paper Doily.
1863 - The Netherlands: Publication of 'De Kleine Papierwerkers' by Elise Van Calcar which includes the earliest known diagrams for the Waterbomb (together with its variant the Hot Air Balloon), the Paper Banger and the Puzzle Purse, the first known reference to/illustrations of the Steamship and the Bellows, the first illustrations of many of the designs mentioned in the earlier 'Manuel Pratique des Jardins D'Enfants de Friedrich Froebel' and designs for 25 of the letters of the alphabet (Q is omitted).
1864 - England: The earliest published instructions for making a true paper plane, in this case the traditional paper dart, are published by Routledge, Warne and Routledge in 'Every Little Boy's Book'.
1870 - USA: William J. Canby read a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania entitled 'The History of the Flag of the United States' in which he describes the upholsterer, and later flag-maker, Betsy Ross cutting a pentagram from folded paper using just a single cut, during an otherwise unsubstantiated, and probably apocryphal, visit to her home by George Washington in 1776.
1876 - Japan: The first Japanese kindergarten was established at the Tokyo Womens Normal School (now Ochanomizu University) by Clara Zitelmann. As a result of the establishment of Kindergarten in Japan some traditional European paperfolds became known to Japanese children.
1877 - Germany: Publication of Des Kindes Erste Beschaftigungsbuch by E Barth and W Niederley which contains the earliest known illustrations of, and instructions for making, the Mitre and the Pencil Case, the Chair, the Fold and Cut Paper Cage, and the earliest known illustration of the Witch's Ladder and the Chicken Wire Letterfold.
1877 - USA: Publication of 'The Kindergarten Guide' by Maria Kraus-Boelte and John Kraus which includes the earliest known illustrations of, and instructions for making, among others, the Pig, the House and the Organ, the Soldier's Cap, the , the Shovel and the One-Piece Star of David.
1882 - England: Publication of Cassell's Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes which contains the earliest known written description of the game of Consequences.
1885 - France: Publication of the earliest known diagrams for the traditional Flapping Bird, and also the earliest known reference to this design of any kind, on page 336 of issue 661 of the French magazine La Nature.
1889 - USA: The first known publication of the Jacob's Ladder toy, derived from the Chinese Wallet, in the magazine Scientific American.
1893 - India: Publication of Tandalam Sundara Rao's book 'Geometrical Exercises in Paperfolding' which took the Froebelian concept of mathematical / geometrical paperfolds to a new level.
1894 - England: Publication of the earliest known diagams for the Lover's Knot in the Boy's Own Paper.
1895 - England: Publication of the Froebelian 'Course of Paperfolding', by Eleenore Heerwart which contains the first known illustration of the Love Knot Letterfold.
1896 - Russia: Leo Tolstoy taught the ten year old F D Polenov (who grew up to become a famous painter) to fold a Flapping Bird while travelling on a train. The paper bird folded by Tolstoy on this journey still survives in the Polenov museum in Russia.
1896 - England: Publication of 'Pleasant Work for Busy Fingers' by Maggie Browne which includes the earliest diagrams published in the West for a version of the Blow-Up Frog (although, oddly, the final blow-up move is not included in the author's instructions).
1922 - Germany: Joseph Albers begins to teach experimental paperfolding and cutting, with an emphasis on the development of three-dimensional structures, as part of the introductory Volkurs course, which was mandatory for all new students, at the Bauhaus.
1925 - France: According to Andre Breton the surrealist game 'Le Cadavre Exquis' or 'The Exquisite Corpse' was first used as a means to attempt to express subconscious thoughts in pictures at 54 rue du Chateau, Paris.
1927/8 - Germany: Zig-zag corrugated surfaces and two concentric crease designs, the Hyperbolic Paraboloid and the Saddle, first appear in photographs taken at the Bauhaus by Erich Consemüller.
1939 - USA: Discovery of the hexaflexagon by Arthur Stone, an English graduate student at Princeton.