A paperfolding paradise
The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell
page attempts to record what is known about the origin
and history of the multiple sheet paperfolding technique
nowadays usually known as modular origami, although it
has had other names in the past. 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.
I formally define modular origami as 'a two stage paperfolding technique which uses multiple sheets of paper. In the first stage each individual sheet of paper is folded into a module. In the second stage the modules are assembled into a self-integrating and stable geometric form.' I believe the requirement for modules to be self-integrating is essential to the definition of modular origami in a modern context but I have not excluded early designs from this history just because they needed to be held together using thread or glue.
There are separate pages about:
The history of Kusudama. Kusudama which are self-integrating (rather than held together by thread or glue) are by definition modular origami designs.
The history of Designs Woven from Folded Strips.
The history of Macromodular Origami.
The earliest hard evidence for the existence of any modular origami design comes from a Japanese book by Hayato Ohoka published in 1734 called 'Ranma Zushiki' which contains prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers. One of these prints shows a group of folded paper objects, the traditional crane, Komoso, the boat now commonly made from a Newspaper Hat, The Sanbo, and a cube. The cube is pictured twice (from slightly different angles) and is identified in the accompanying text as a Tematebako or 'magic treasure chest'.
Judged on the drawing alone the cube could be one of many designs but it is almost certain from the name that the design pictured in this print is the cube made from six modules developed from Menko (which can be used to hold thread and so are also sometimes known as Thread Containers). These modules have tabs and pockets, the tabs being developed by cutting a cross shaped slit into the back layer of the paper. We do not, however, know whether, at this early date, the Tematebako would have been glued together or whether the assembly would have relied on the tabs and pockets alone.
The abridged edition of Isao Honda's book 'The World of Origami', first published by Japan Publications in 1965 contains several modular designs, a Cubical Box (the Tematebako), a Six-sided Box which becomes a Hanging Ornament (see picture below), a Mystery Box made from 5x1 rectangles, a Hot Plate Holder, made from folded postcards, and a Woven Mat made from folded and interwoven strips. The Hanging Ornament is provided with tassles.
In Western Europe / USA
The Playing Card Cube - 1759 onwards
(Also a macromodular design)
The book 'Joujoux En Papier' by Tom Tit, which was published in Paris by Paul Lechevalier in 1924, contained diagrams for a design called 'L'Etoile A Devider' - a two part modular Star of David folded from equilateral triangles which is assembled without the need for glue.
'Paper Toy Making' by Margaret Campbell, which was first published by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd in London, probably in 1937, although both the Foreword and Preface are dated 1936, which argues that the book was complete at that date, contains diagrams for making a 'Japanese Ornamental Ball' from six blintzed bird bases. According to the text 'The Japanese make six of these, and sew them together at the points until a complete ball is made. ... A coloured bead finishes off each corner.'
'El Plegado y Cartonaje en la Escuela Primaria' by Antonio M Luchia and Corina Luciani de Luchia, which was published by Editorial Kapelusz in Buenos Aires in 1940, contains instructions showing how to make a two-part modular cube.
'Paper Magic' by Robert Harbin, which was published by Oldbourne in London in 1956, contains instructions for making Harbin's Christmas Star Decoration by sewing together six Outer Space Ships.