The Public Paperfolding History Project

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The Chinese Wallet / Jacob's Ladder
 
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the flexing toys now usually known as the Chinese Wallet and Jacob's Ladder. These are of interest to the historian of paperfolding because they are precursors of flexagons. The name Chinese Wallet should not be taken to imply that this toy is actually of Chinese origin.

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The Chinese Wallet

1502

The earliest known evidence for the existence of the Chinese Wallet comes from a description in the manuscript De Viribus Quantitatis by Luca Pacioli which was written around 1502. According to the dissertation 'Luca Pacioli and his 1500 book De Viribus Quantitatis' (hich can be found at http://repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/18435/1/ulfc113829_tm_Tiago_Hirth.pdf), 'Pacioli describes how to construct the device with two wooden slabs and 3 straps, forming a “wallet”. Place a straw in between the single strip and close and open the wallet again in the other possible way to produce the straw trapped by the other two straps. Pacioli tells how old people entertain infants with this device.

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c1520

The same device features in a painting by the Italian painter Bernadino Luini (1470 - 1533) which according to David Singmaster ('Some Early Topological Puzzles' in Recreational mathematics magazine number 3 March 2015) can be dated to around 1520.

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c1524

In the same article reference is made to another picture showing a Chinese Wallet, this time by the Venetian painter Bernadino Licinio (1485-c1549) which is said to date to around 1524.

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1584

Diagrams showing how such a wallet can be made appeared in 'La Premiere partie des subtiles et plaisant inventions' by Jean Prevost, which was published in Lyons in 1584.

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1636

The Chinese Wallet design also appears in 'Deliciae physico-mathematicae, oder mathematische und philosophische Erquickstunden' by Daniel Schwenter, which was first published in 1636.

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1682

And in the 1684 edition of Simon Witgeest's 'Het natuurlyk tover-boek', published in Amsterdam. (Information from Michel Grand.) I have not been able to check whether or not it also appeared in the 1682 first edition.

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1872

A primitive, and unnecessarily complicated, version of the Chinese Wallet appears as The Magic Pocketbook (Die zwei magichen Brieftaschen) in 'Hanky Panky' by W H Cremer, Jun, which was published by John Camden Hotten in London in 1872. The fact that this effect is given a German name in brackets, which other effects are not, may mean that the author has taken this from an earlier German source.

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The Chinese Wallet also appears:

1940

In 'At Home Tonight' by Herbert McKay, which was published by Oxford University Press in London, New York and Toronto in 1940, as 'A Note-Case'.

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1949

As 'Porte-Billets' inn 'Au Pays des Mains Agiles', which was published by Editions Fleurus in Paris in 1949.

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Jacob's Ladder

1820

The Winterthur Museum possess a six-panel Jacob's Ladder, made of wooden panels covered with paper and linked with string, which can be dated to between 1770 and 1820. (Information from Michel Grand.) The clips at the side of the panels were probably originally used to hold small bells.

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There is another, quite similar, version, of much the same age, in the Cotsen Children's Library collection at Princeton University.

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1840

Toronto Public Library possesses a five-panel Jacob’s Ladder of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both in their wedding clothes, which can be dated to 1840. When the handle is rotated the tablets flip over in turn to reveal the other person. (Information from Michel Grand.)

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1850

Charles Dickens describes a Jacob's Ladder toy in his short story 'A Christmas Tree', published in the periodical 'Household Words' in 1850: '... but the Jacob’s Ladder, next him, made of little squares of red wood, that went flapping and clattering over one another, each developing a different picture, and the whole enlivened by small bells, was a mighty marvel and a great delight.'

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There is an entry in David Singmaster's Chronology of Recreational Mathematics that 'c1850 Jacob's Ladder toys appear'.

In his article 'Some Early Topological Puzzles' in Recreational mathematics magazine number 3 march 2015' he provides a picture of a Jacob's Ladder type toy which has four parts (and a handle) which he calls a 'Hand Operated Game of Changing-Pictures' and which is said to date from c1852.

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1876

Charles Dickens also wrote about this toy in his article 'Toys, Past and Present' in the issue of the periodical 'All the Year Round' for October 1st 1876: 'It consisted of six oblong pieces of wood, adorned with pictures on both sides, and so connected with tapes that when the top piece, which was held in the hand, was turned down, all the others would turn down likewise by an apparently spontaneous movement, causing a new series of pictures to be presented to the eye, which was highly gratified by the change, as were also the ears by the clattering of the wooden tablets and the tinkling of some little bells which they were decorated.'

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1889

There is an article about the Jacob's Ladder in Scientific American, v6, n15, p227, published on 12th October 1889. The article can be found online at https://archive.org/stream/scientific-american-1889-10-12/scientific-american-v61-n15-1889-10-12#page/n3/mode/2up

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1894

A drawing of a Jacob's Ladder appears in the illustrated book 'Gekko manga' by Azuma Kenzaburo, which was published in 1894. This is the earliest illustration of this toy that I have been able to find in a Japanese source.

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1899

Jacob's Ladder also appears in 'Le Livre des Amusettes' by Toto, which was published in Paris by Charles Mendel in 1899.

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1932

'Winter Nights Entertainments' by R M Abraham, which was first published by Constable and Constable in London in 1932, contained a description of a Jacob's Ladder toy made from interlocking rings.

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