The Lister List

Really Old Origami

David Coblentz, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, which is interested in medieval recreations, asks which origami models have been around the longest, specifically before 1650. He also asks if there is any documentation of such models.

Research (which would take a long time) is really needed, but I will try to answer his question as well as I can without research, but with the warning that these Ideas are only provisional.

Frankly, David is asking a question which is very difficult to answer. The term "origami" does not, of course, relate to the period of which he is speaking, even in Japan. Indeed, it appears that even the term "paper folding" did not appear in Europe until the 19th century. Nor does there seem to have been any concept of paperfolding as a distinct craft or activity until the mid 19th century. Furthermore, is he referring solely to recreational or "play" paperfolding, or does he include religious, ceremonial and utilitarian folding?

David also seems to be referring specifically to Europe, although he may also intend to include other parts of the world. China, Japan and the Middle East come to mind.

Furthermore, is he restricting his query to paper as such, or does he include folding of other materials such as cloth? If he means paper as such, then paper-making did not arrive in southern Europe until 1036 in Spain (under the Moors), Italy in 1276 and France until 1348 so that the period during which paperfolding could have developed was fairly limited over most of the continent.

The salient truth about the early history of paperfolding is that despite what was earlier supposed, before 1600 there is hardly any firm evidence either in the West or, surprisingly, in the East, including Japan. Anything concerning paperfolding before David's final date of 1650 is mainly conjecture, although one or two reasonable inferences can be made.

Even In Japan there is almost no evidence about paperfolding before 1600. This certainly applies to recreational paperfolding. However, there are vague indications that there was some ceremonial and utilitarian folding for some centuries before that date. Tato, (which were originally folds of paper that gentlemen carried around with them and which do not resemble modern Japanese tato) and methods of folding letters date from the Heian era (749 - 1185, which is hardly precise dating). The Mecho and Ocho butterflies, used to decorate sake flasks also seem to date from the Heian era. The well-known "tsutsumi" or ceremonial wrappers, used especially for various kinds of flowers, probably date from the Muromachi era (1333 - 1573). However we cannot give any precise dates. Of these folds only the mecho and ocho butterflies have any resemblance whatsoever to modern recreational paperfolding.

The same obscurity applies in the West, too. Folding and pleating of cloth dates from the time of ancient Egypt and continued during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. However, while it may have been folding or pleating of a kind, it did not resemble recreational paperfolding as we know it. In Italy in the 15th Century there developed a vogue for pleating and folding table napkins to form elaborate birds, animals and ships to decorate princely banqueting tables. This was certainly not recreational folding in our modern understanding of the term and did not even resemble modern napkin folding, but some of the books written about contain one or two of our modern folds, including the waterbomb base. The earliest evidence of this kind of folding is in the book, "Li Tre trattati", published in Padua, Italy in 1639. Much of the content of this book was included by George Philipp Harssdorfer in his book "Vollstandiges Vermehrtes Trincir-Buch", published in Nuremburg, Germany in 1665.

There remain one or two suggestions that there may have been paperfolding in medieval Europe. During the 12th Century a particular square design of astrological horoscopes was introduced in Italy by Gerardo Cremone. In view of the circular motions of the heavenly bodies, it is a puzzle why a square should have been adopted. The lines on the square resemble the creases of a windmill base or double -blintz. In the 16th century, central European baptismal certificates (which may or may not be related to the astrological horoscopes) certainly were folded in a double blinz. So were the horoscopes similarly folded? And was there any significance in the making of the folding that made it desirable to adopt a square design for horoscopes? We can only guess!

Then in 1490, a reprint of "El Spaera Mundi", a book written much earlier manuscript book by the Englishman John Holywood was published in Venice. It included a diagram of the motion of the sun round the earth and the figure of the earth at the centre showed a coastal city with a sea in front. On the sea is a boat which looks extraordinarily like our familiar paper boat folded from a simple hat. Is this mere coincidence? Or was the engraver of the diagram merely representing an actual sailing ship of the time or playfully including paper boats in his picture? We can only guess.

In 1614, the English playwright, John Webster, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote his play, the Duchess of Malfi, which is still frequently played on the English stage. In the play, there is a reference to the paper prisons in which small boys imprison flies. This seems likely to refer to the familiar waterbomb (known as the balloon in Japan), which is still used by young boys to imprison flies with a view to amplifying their buzzing. The use of the waterbomb for this purpose is still known in China and has been reported from modern Egypt. But the paper prisons may have been something quite different.

By now we have arrived at 1614, which is not far our limiting date of 1650 and we have only three possible references to paperfolding in Europe, all of them vague and uncertain. Further developments are not recorded in Europe until the 18th century and even then they are far from clear.

So much for Europe, but what about Japan? From the beginning of the 17th Century Japanese prints begin to appear which show models made by paperfolding. There are also representations of figures depicted on elaborately decorated kimonos. Perhaps most interesting is a small black and white print of 1734, which shows a collection of folded models. They include the simple boat from a hat (like to one which may be shown in the Venetian book of 1490), a "Sanbo" or box, the figure of a man in a coolie hat. There is also a cube with an X on each face, which may be a representation of the "tematebako" which was probably the first of all modular folds known. Perhaps most significant of all the folds shown in the print is the familiar tsuru or crane. Now the crane is quite an advanced fold, so we can conjecture that it was known long before 1734 in Japan. But how much earlier, we cannot say. The Muromachi Period (1333 - 1573), just before 1600 is often suggested as the period for the development of recreational paperfolding. This seems to be likely, but unfortunately we have no direct evidence of folding during that period.

From 1734 onwards, there are frequent representations of the Crane in Japan and also some of the other simple traditional folds which became familiar in both Japan and the West, folds including containers, boxes, ships, hats and simple human figures. The century culminated in 1794 with the publication in Japan of the Senbazuro Orikata (the Thousand Cranes) and the Chushingura Orikata, which consists of two instruction sheets with instructions for simple human figures. However, neither of these works, interesting though they are, is about ordinary paperfolding or origami as we usually understand it.

For Japanese Paperfolding there are two main sources. The first is Satoshi Takagi's large booklet "Origami from the Classics", which was published by the Nippon Origami Association in 1993 and which is still available. It is, however, in Japanese.

Also in Japanese is the exhibition catalogue. "Oru Kokoru" by Masao Okamura, the present leading Japanese historian of origami, which was published in 1999. I regret that I do not know whether it is sill in print, but it is another splendid panorama of Japanese folding since 1600 and reproduces prints and illustrations collected by Satoshi Takagi with a historical commentary by Okamura.

For the early history of Western folding, very little has been written. Vicente Palacios of Spain has covered some of the ground in his books, "Papiroflexia" and "La Creacion en Papiroflexia", but much of his more recent research is contained in "Pajarita", the magazine of the AEP, (the Spanish paperfolding society) and in private papers.

My own article, "Some Observations on Paperfolding in Japan and the West" is included in "Origami, Science and Art" (1999) being the proceedings of the Second International Meeting of Scientific Origami which took place in Japan in 1994.

Also in this book is Masao Okamura's article, "Another view of the word, Origami". Although this is primarily about the origin of the word, it also gives some fascinating glimpses into early Japanese folding.

Other information has to be painstakingly gleaned from numerous books and papers. Unfortunately much that has been written purporting to be the history of paperfolding is misleading, if not downright inaccurate and the history of Origami has still to be written.

Most of the early folds can be found in books of traditional paperfolding. So far there is not complete collection of traditional models. Robert Harbin's "Paper Magic" and "Secrets of Origami" contain some of them. Many are included in various books by Steven and Megumi Biddle. Among the many Japanese books that contain traditional folds, those by Kazuo Kobayashi and Makoto Yamaguchi may be mentioned, with the caution such books do not always distinguish between those folds that are traditional and those which have been devised by the author. A large collection of folds traditional in the West has been made by David Petty and may be seen on his web site (, although there is no attempt there to suggest dates for the origin of the models shown. Many of them may date from the 19th century earlier. Some migrated to the West from Japan, while others may be quite recent but anonymous creations.

By investigating these old models one by one, much light is being thrown on early paperfolding and painstakingly the early history of origami is being pieced together.

David Lister

Grimsby, England.

17th December, 2001

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