The Lister List

Old-Timers Folding

Where did the old-timers learn their Folding?

In her letter dated 7th May, Kristine Tomlinson highlights several very interesting matters. I value her contribution, and if I do not immediately take them all up, it is only because there are not enough hours in the day, especially if I am expected to do any research before launching forth. But I should like to say a little about where people like Robert Harbin and Lillian Oppenheimer learnt their paperfolding, because there seems to be a misconception that paperfolding actually started only in the 1950s.

The short answer is that they learnt to fold paper as children, either in the home or in the school playground. Gershon Legman learnt to fold planes at school. Robert Harbin learnt to fold as a boy in South Africa. I don't think I have any definite evidence that Lillian Oppenheimer learnt at school, but it is most likely All children learnt to fold simple paper hats and ships, boxes and darts. In the Western World there was a constant reservoir of some twenty, thirty or perhaps more traditional folds which circulated in the manner of folklore. We can trace some of them back to the 18th Century, and we think we have evidence for the waterbomb in England in 1614. The German educator Friedrich Froebel spoke of his folding as a child in the late 18th Century, and many traditional folds were included in books produced for the Froebelian kindergarten schools between 1880 and 1920. In addition, from about 1870, paperfolding began to be included in collections of pastimes for both children and adults. One of the first monographs on paperfolding was "Fun with Paperfolding" published in 1928 by W.D.Murray and F.J.Rigney. Lillian Oppenheimer used this book to entertain her young daughter Molly, when she was sick, and many other paperfolders traced their interest in paperfolding as adults back to this book. Margaret Campbell's "Paper Toy Making" appeared in England in 19360 or 1937, and it remained in print until the 1960's. In 1953, Robert Harbin's interest in paperfolding was sparked into life when he visited his wife in hospital and found some injured airmen folding from this book. Another book was "Fun with Paper" by Joseph Leeming, published in the United States in 1939. It may still be in print. Murray and Rigney, and Margaret Campbell's books were both reprinted by Dover.

Of course, all these books were primitive by modern standards. They did not use the modern system of symbols and were hard to understand. For the most part they included only the traditional models, though occasionally an author included a crude idea of his own. It was not until the impact of Yoshizawa in the 1950's, that the idea of "Creative Folding" was taken up by Robert Harbin. In turn Lillian Oppenhimer read Harbn's book and her own emerging interest in paperfolding leapt into flame. Before that, creating new models was very limited. Jack Skillman was an early exception, but sadly, we know little of his early work.

Perhaps 1956, when Robert Harbin published "Paper Magic" was the start of the new era; perhaps it was the formation of the Origami Center in 1958. Perhaps the sudden inflow of English-language books on Japanese Origami, starting in the mid 1950s contributed. But really, there were many contributing factors which came together quite miraculously to cause a great explosion of paperfolding, and in particular, of creative paperfolding from about 1958. We are all part of that movement.

But Paperfolding/Origami, call it what you will, has a long history in both Europe and Japan, and Legman, Harbin, Lillian Oppenheimer and the rest did not suddenly create it out of nothing.

David Lister

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