Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell

 
Paper Boats
 
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of paper boats. 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.

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The Paper Boat - 1490 onwards

First appears in the West in 1490 and in Japan in 1734

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In 'The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania', published in 1621, Mary Wroth describes an errant ship: ‘unguided she was, unrul’d, and unman’d, tumbling up and downe, like the Boates boyes make of paper’. Source: Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 8 (2017) - 'Scrutinizing Surfaces ‘A unique instance of art’: The Proliferating Surfaces of Early Modern Paper' by Helen Smith (www.northernrenaissance.org/a-unique-instance-of-art-the-proliferating-surfaces-of-early-modern-paper/). I have not been able to verify this reference.

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The Takarabune - 1704 onwards

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In a letter sent home to his mother from his school on the Isla Real de Leon, dated 10th July 1757, schoolboy Guillermo Pen wrote 'Con esta estratagema les hago callar; y despues para hacerme amigo de ellas, a unos les hago cometas, a otros barcas, navios, pajaros, y otras muchos cosas, todo de papel.' (With this ploy I silence them; and then to make friends with them, I make kites for some, for other boats, ships, birds, and many other things, all of paper.) His letter can be found in 'Entretenimiento de Los Ninos' by Monsieur Rochon, published in Madrid in both Spanish and French in 1779.

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On Monday October 24th 1808 Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister Cassandra which included two references to paper ships, of some undefined kind.

'We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed;'

And

'While I write now, George is most industriously making and naming paper ships, at which he afterwards shoots with horse-chestnuts brought from Steventon on purpose;'

Information provided by Dawn Tucker.

It seems more likely to me that these were Paper Boats rather than Chinese Junks.

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The Chinese Junk / Gondola - 1806 onwards

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According to his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) had a passion for folding and sailing paper boats which he made from any paper available at hand including letters and the flyleaves of books. There is no direct evidence that these were Paper Boats rather than Chinese Junks but it seems likely that this was the case. Several pages of Volume 1 of Hogg's 'The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley' published in 1858, were devoted to describing this fascination, which seems to have almost amounted to an obsession.

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In July 1820 Shelley wrote a poem 'Letter to Lady Gisborne' which includes the lines: 'And in this bowl of quicksilver - for I / Yield to the impulse of an infancy / Outlasting manhood - I have made to float / A rude idealism of a paper boat:'

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Hans Christian Anderson's children's fantasy story 'Den standhaftige soldat' (in English 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier') includes reference to a paper boat. It was first published on October 2, 1838, along with "The Wild Swans" and "The Daisy", as part of the anthology 'Fairy Tales Told to Children New Collection'. In the story two children make a boat out of newspaper, put the tin soldier in it and send it sailing away down the gutter. The paper boat eventually sinks when it fills with water. I have not been able to find whether the original illustrations showed this aspect of the story, and if so which type of boat they showed, although from the fact it was folded from newspaper it seems likely that it was a Paper Boat. The way the boat is folded does not appear to be explained, which argues that Hans Christian Anderson probably believed it would already be familiar to his young readers.

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The Little Boat - 1893

As far as I know this design first appears under the title of 'Petit Bateau' in 'L'Annee Preparatoire de Travail Manuel' by M P Martin, which was published by Armand Collin & Cie in Paris in 1893.

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The Flat Bottomed Boat - 1893 onwards

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The Double Boat with Sail - 1893 onwards

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Shelley's Boat - 1902

J M Barrie's novel 'The Little White Bird', was first published in Scribner's Magazine in America as a monthly serial from August to November November 1902, then as a complete novel by both Hodder & Stoughton in London and Scribner's in November of the same year. Chapter 15, titled 'The Thrush's Nest' includes mention of a paper boat made from a £5 note by a character called Shelley, who is a poet, and presumably intended to be recognised as Percy Bysshe Shelley who had a passion for folding paper boats.

In the story Shelley's boat is simply a device to put both a five pound note and an idea into Peter Pan's mind. A full copy of the book can be accessed at https://archive.org/details/littlewhitebirdo00barr/page/n5/mode/2up

Much of this book, including chapter 15, was also included in J M Barrie's later novel 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens' which was published in 1906 and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. One of the illustrations shows Solomon and his assistants examining the £5 note. Unfortunately the creases visible on this note do not reveal what kind of paper boat it had been folded into.

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La Peniche - 1924 onwards

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Another Double Boat - 1932 onwards

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The Sampan - 1937 onwards

As far as I know the first appearance of the Sampan in the historical record, under the title the 'Lifeboat', is in Margaret Campbell's 'Paper Toy Making' 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.

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The Double Boat with Two Sails - 1904 onwards

As far as I know this design first appears as 'Un Barco de Dos Velas' in 'Guia Practica del Trabajo Manual Educativo' by Ezequiel Solana, which was published by Editorial Magisterio Español in Madrid in 1904.

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The design also appears as 'El barco volero' in 'El Mundo de Papel' by Dr Nemesio Montero, which was published by G Miranda in Edicions Infancia in Valladolid in 1939.

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A very similar design appears as 'Bote de Dos Velas' in '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.

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The Inside Out Boat - 1948

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