The Public Paperfolding History Project

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Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian, 1835

'Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian' which was written (or perhaps only edited) by his wife, Anne Jackson Mathews, was published by R Bentley in London and Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1839 four years after Mathew's death in 1835.

It contains the earliest mention of paper darts (actually printed as paper-darts) that I know of:

Page 30 of Volume 1 of the Philadelphia edition states 'and we shot paper-darts' into the head master's wig so 'that it looked like a fretful porcupine'. This activity is dated to 'about the year 1786' when Mathews would have been 10 years old.

Unfortunately this description is not precise enough to enable us to identify what kind of paper-darts these were. If we accept that mention of 'paper-darts' at a date around 1786 is a true memory rather than an imaginative anachronism the possibilities are:

1. The Paper Dart / Arrow design that we now think of as a paper plane.

2, Pen nibs fitted with folded paper flights (see below).

3, Small paper cones shot from a blowpipe.

4. Some other design of paper-dart of which we are presently unaware.

The Paper Dart does not seem to be a serious contender here. It is difficult to see a wig full of Paper Darts resembling a 'fretful porcupine' and unlikely that the impact, even on 'a huge powdered wig', would not be felt. The word 'shot' is also problematic, since Paper Darts are generally launched by throwing.

On similar grounds we can also rule out pen nibs or other nose weights with folded paper flights attached. In addition, metal pen nibs, although they existed, were not mass produced and in general use until the 1820s.

The idea that these paper darts may have been small paper cones shot from a blowpipe is more appealing. A wigful of such darts might well look like 'a fretful porcupine' and their impact on the wig might well go unnoticed. Such darts are also shot not thrown. The difficulty here is that, at present, we have no other independent early evidence for the existence of this design.

Option 4 is clearly a possibility but by its very nature there can be no evidence to support it.