A paperfolding paradise
The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell
|Paper Darts and Flights|
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of folded paper darts and paper flights. 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.
1657 and 1800
'Les Jeux et Plaisirs de l'Enfance' which was published in 1657 contains 50 engravings of naked boys engaged in playing various, often very robust, games, one of which shows them playing darts. The flights look as though they could well be made of paper, possibly from a square folded into a waterbomb base. The angles of the flights shown in the engraving are not quite the angles you would expect if this was the case, though this, of course, could be down to artistic licence in the engraving.
In 1800 a new version of the book was published, edited by Alexandre Chaponnier, containing just twelve of the original pictures, with the quatrains revised and corrected and with some explanatory text. The explanatory text for the 'Les Dards' image reads:
According to this text the flights were 'un papier plie en quatre et introduit dans deux fentes en croix' (a paper folded in four and inserted in two cross slits) which confirms the idea that they were formed by folding a waterbomb base from a square.
The earliest mention of paper darts (actually printed as paper-darts) that I know of is in 'Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian' which was written (or perhaps only edited) by his wife, Anne Jackson Mathews, and published by R Bentley in London and Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1839 four years after Mathew's death in 1835.
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).
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 they were 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 alternative evidence for the existence of this design until 1949.
Option 4 is clearly a possibility but by its very nature there can be no evidence to support it.
'The Popular Recreator', which was published by Cassell and Co in London in 1873, contains a description of the game of 'Dart and Target' which uses darts made of wooden dowel with a pin at one end and a paper flight in the form of a waterbomb base at the other.
The game of 'Dart and Target' was also described, though without illustration' in 'Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun', which was published by Cassell and Co in London in 1881
The first volume of 'La Science Amusante' by Tom Tit (real name Arthur Good), which was first published in Paris by Librairie Larouse in 1890, contained a drawing showing a pen nib combined with what I take to be a waterbomb base (though the French text does not specifically say this) to make a dart. This book, along with its two companion volumes, was a compendium of articles previously published in the French magazine 'L'Illustration'. I do not know the date that this article was originally published.
(As an aside, the method of turning a needle into a dart by attaching a piece of cotton was described De Viribus Quantitates, written by by Luca Pacioli and published in around 1502, chapter 134 of which is headed 'To toss a needle with a string and have it stay in the door or other wood'.
According to www.patrickchaplin.com/Paperflight.htm Nathan P. McKenney, of Dixon, in the County of Lee, Illinois, USA, filed a patent application on 11 March 1898, Letters Patent No. 613,386, which was approved on 1 November 1898.
This site quotes the application to the effect that My invention relates to toys and games, and particularly to a game apparatus of the dart and target type, and has for its object to provide a dart, adapted to be projected manually, whereof the feather is of four-wing construction and is formed from a foldable blank of paper or other flexible material to adapt it to be replaced with facility.
An illustration from the application which shows that the flights were of two types, preliminary base and waterbomb base folds, is shown below.
The full patent can be viewed at https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/c9/dd/49/f5e2e044dbbd18/US613386.pdf
'La Ensenanza del Trabajo Manuel' by Pedro de Alcántara García and Teodosio Leal y Quiroga, which was published in Madrid in 1903, describes how to fold a waterbomb base and then how to attach it as a flight to a wooden dowel, which is either, in the case of young children, sharpened to a point, or in the case of older children, fitted with a pen nib to act as a point.
In March 2012 the Daily Mail Online reported that a trove of paper planes (sic) had been discovered in the eaves of St Anne's Chapel, Barnstaple during renovations, presumably having been thrown up there around 100 years before by children when the building functioned as a school. As far as I know no attempt has been made to date these darts precisely. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2111963/Schoolboys-100-year-old-paper-planes-pre-date-manned-flight-eaves-chapel.html
There is a possible reference to darts made with paper flights in 'Coming Up For Air' by George Orwell, first published in 1939. 'And I got inky fingers and bit my nails and made darts out of penholders and played conkers ...' (p69 of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition).
'How to Play Darts and New Games for the Dartboard' by John Young, published by Foulsham in London in 1939 contained the following information relating to folded paper dart flights:
Information from Patrick Chaplin.
This photo culled from the internet, unfortunately undated, shows a set of brass darts with paper flights.
In 'Paper Magic' by Robert Harbin, which was published by Oldbourne in London in 1956, his 'Basic Fold Three', which we now know as the Preliminary Fold, is called 'The Dart Flight'. No further information about the use of this fold as a Dart Flight is, however, given.