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In the Beginning

This year the we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the British Origami Society. I thought it an opportune time to recall the events which led up to the starting of our great Society.

In May 1966 I wrote to Lillian Oppenheimer  as I wanted to subscribe to the journal. 'The Origamian'. In her reply to me she mentioned that there was  an English Paper Folding Group called the Portfolio Society and gave me the address of the founder, Sidney French.
I promptly wrote to Sidney French and on the 3rd June he invited me to join the Society, and I gladly accepted. The Portfolio Society was a splendid idea, at intervals a large box arrived from the previous member and one added any new contributions, removed one's previous effort, and commented on items from other members. Then one repackaged the box and sent it to the next member on the list.  I found it a stimulating process and it spurred me on to invent models and later on to publish ideas on a theory of Origami. The Portfolio Society was quite informal but succeeded brilliantly in what the founder set out to do.

In February 1967 my company sent me to the USA to look into computer equipment and applications. While I was in New York I took the opportunity to meet Lillian Oppenheimer at her home in Greenwich Village. In her typical warm hearted way she invited other folders so it was quite a gathering. I was introduced to Alice Gray, Baggi, and many other New York folders. During the evening a large chest was produced which contained a great many remarkable models. In many cases the name of the creator  was not known and there where no notes or diagrams on how to fold the model . Nevertheless it was a memorable memorable for me and I took great care to write a   detailed account of the occasion that same evening.

On the plane returning to England I thought about the problem of models of great merit being lost to the Origami world. It seemed to me essential to have the folding instructions enabling anyone to attempt the models. Yoshizawa had already shown how folding diagrams could be used and Harbin and Randlett had extended his methods.
I did consider a library of models but this appeared to be totally impractical since it would still not provide the information to make the folds even if one could keep the vast number of copies required if some sort of library loaning was possible. I came to the conclusion that we needed to establish a library of  instruction sheets for models which could be loaned or sold to folders. I should make it clear that at this time there were very few Origami books published so there was a need to find ways of making models available.

In March 1967 Lillian wrote to me with an invitation to an Origami meeting in April . Lillian's daughter Rosaly Evnine lived in London and when Lillian visited her she took the opportunity to have an Origami get together. Lillian Oppenheimer was the greatest ambassador for Origami in the world and we owed her a great deal for the support she gave us in England. 

At the meeting in April I put the case for a British Origami library and was asked to draw up a  plan to show how it could be done. In working out the details I had to consider the case that many folders would want to buy a copies of the instructions sheets, rather than just borrow them from a library. We are now very used to making copies easily and cheaply of any document but in 1967  it was a very different story. One process used a special carbon which was then transferred to paper using spirit, Another required stencils to be cut into a special master. With these procedures it was difficult to make alterations to the masters and storage them was messy and difficult.
The only economic and effective method of copying diagrams was the dye- line process typically used in drawing offices for copying plans.  I planned therefore to produce masters on transparent paper suitable for dye-line copying. In the end these became the 'M' series of the library.
The last problem which concerned me was the organisation required. I had learned through bitter experience that where money was concerned it was essential to have a formal structure and constitution.  The answer was to put the library into a new organisation which I labelled The British Origami Society.  I prepared a document outlining this proposal and in April sent it to members of the Portfolio Society and interested parties. 

In May 1967 I received a letter from Sidney French in which he wrote

'.......I like your proposals for  the BOS and your steps for implementing them .A formal organisation is, of course. essential for the library and to extend our activities and membership '

Sidney saw the BOS as a means of extending Origami activities whereas I had thought of it simply as a way of setting up the library. He asked me to draft rules and agreed on the need for an inaugural meeting. David Lister wrote to me on the 18th June expressing his agreement with the plan for the library, but added the following comment:-

'I did have serious second thoughts about your stipulation that the Society should be organised on a formal basis  with officers and subscriptions. Do we wish to cross this Rubicon?  Do we wish to abandon our present spontaneous little Society for one bound by rules and regulations? On further thought, perhaps we should . '
I knew exactly what David meant- the Portfolio Society was something precious and it would be a pity to lose it. In the event the Portfolio Society continued after the BOS was founded. The were inherent problems with it in that as the numbers of people wishing to take part grew so the length of the chain had to grow or more boxes or chains needed to be added. This posed quite a problem in control particularly if a member kept a box for a long time or failed to pass it on at all.

I drafted a set of rules for the BOS but on seeing those proposed by David I was very happy to accept his approach !  David, Sidney French and I thrashed out details of a Constitution while  I also continued to work on the setting up of the library ready for the  launch of the BOS.

  • Sidney French was our generous host at the Russell Hotel in London and on the 28th October the BOS was formally set up, followed by a dinner. Sidney French was appointed Chairman,  Robert Harbin became our first President and  Lillian Oppenheimer and Alfred Bestall became Vice-Presidents. I became the first Librarian.
  • The BOS took over the Portfolio Society and Sidney French agreed to continue as administrator.
  • Sidney French showed great perception in proposing a very young Mick Guy as our first Secretary and with Mick's immense enthusiasm,  creativity and drive, the Society rapidly grew in members and in the range of activities it offered. 

A few weeks after the inaugural meetings I sent out the first library list of 23 items. The 'M' series were transparent instruction sheets from which copies were made which could be borrowed or bought , the 'J' series were other items which could only be loaned out. The Society from the very beginning emphasised the importance of fully respecting copyright by anyone using the Library.

I  freely admit that I had not foreseen the wonderful subsequent development of the Society, I had simply considered it essential for the establishment of a viable library. The BOS was possibly the first open democratic Origami Society in the world and has been blessed with many outstanding folders, administrators and donors.

As for the library ,I believe that the BOS has now  the most important collection of Origami books and documents held by any Society in the world, so perhaps you will forgive me for being rather proud of the part I played in its creation so long ago.

John Smith
Vice President

I am most grateful to David Lister for his help in preparing this paper. Reference should be made to BOS booklet No. 3 by David giving an important account of the history of Paper Folding in Britain.  I have only attempted to relate as accurately as I can the events which led to the formation of the BOS 40 years ago.  The documents referred to in this article are now held by the BOS library.

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