The Public Paperfolding History Project

Index Page


A Brief History of Paperfolding in Western Europe and the Americas

Practical, Educational and Recreational Paperfolding in Western Europe and the Americas until 1931



This is a history, or historical narrative, rather than a chronology of events. For that reason, on occasion, it jumps backwards and forwards in time. It is also worth noting that this is only a brief history. It does not attempt to cover every known facet of educational and recreational paperfolding, just to sketch in the main outlines of the story.

Creating a historical narrative is rather like playing a game of join-the-dots. You start with a series of discreet facts and try to join them up to create a coherent picture. In the case of the history of paperfolding the facts are often thin on the ground, and many of the dots are missing. This lack of evidence is largely because objects made of paper are ephemeral and that the record we have of them relies on their chance survival or their mention or appearance in poetry, books, fabrics, drawings and paintings. It is likely that many paperfolds are much older than the earliest evidence for their existence, but, unfortunately, we cannot know, even approximately, how much older they might actually be. It is inevitable, therefore, that any narrative of paperfolding history will be inaccurate in places.

It is also worth remembering that this is not a definitive, set in stone, type of history. New evidence in this field is being uncovered all the time. Some of this new evidence will no doubt confirm the validity of the historical narratives in this document. Other new evidence will equally undoubtedly require that we reassess what we think we know.

Paper is folded for many purposes, around objects to prevent them from becoming damaged, to create containers to keep things together, or apart, to allow a larger sheet to be stored in a smaller space, to conceal what is written or printed on it, as the basis of entertainments and magical effects, for educational purposes, to illustrate mathematical principles, to create toys and puzzles, to create decorations for the home, as a pastime, as an artform and many, many more. While acknowledging that paperfolding is about all these different things, this brief history concentrates on educational paperfolding, paperfolding used to teach or train, and recreational paperfolding, paperfolding done as a pastime, or a means of personal entertainment, and only mentions other aspects of paperfolding when they are relevant to the development of the main story being told.

The ideal evidence to substantiate the existence of any specific paperfolding design at an early date is a combination of an illustration (to show us what the design looked like) and a written description (to confirm that the design is in fact made from folded paper). Unfortunately, in many cases, one or the other of these elements is missing. If we only have text it can be difficult to know exactly what design is being described or referred to. If we only have an illustration, then it can sometimes be impossible to know if the design is folded from paper or some other material.

Paper was probably first imported into Western Europe from the Islamic countries, but from the 11th Century onwards mills for the manufacture of paper began to be established in Western Europe. I have no doubt that, while this paper may have been intended primarily for writing on, some of it was soon folded for purely practical purposes. At some point paper replaced vellum and parchment as the material of choice for using in codexes and was, of course, widely used for letters and other documents.

The Grocer's Cone

Paper would also, I am sure, have been widely used for packaging from an early date, perhaps largely in the form of the ubiquitous Grocer’s Cone, which is made by rolling up an oblong sheet of paper diagonally. A Grocer’s Cone, presumably made from paper, although there is no text to confirm it is paper, appears in the famous painting 'Children's Games' by Peter Bruegel the Elder which dates to 1560.

Detail from 'Children's Games' by Peter Bruegel the Elder


De Viribus Quantitatis

The earliest indisputable evidence we have for folded paper being used for less mundane purposes than these comes from the manuscript 'De Viribus Quantitates' by Luca Pacioli, fundamentally a book of mathematical puzzles, possibly produced in collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci, which dates to between 1496 and 1508. It gives the first known descriptions of the Cherries Puzzle, three methods of sealing a letter without wax, one of which seems to be the Chickenwire Letterfold, and another possibly a precursor of the Love Knot Paperfold, explains how to cook in a pan made of folded paper and gives a method of constructing an accurate right angle, without using compasses, by folding a sheet of paper twice.


There are three earlier documents which appear to illustrate designs folded from paper but, unfortunately, all of them lack any kind of explanatory text to confirm what the pictures show.

These are:

A picture in an illustrated version of 'The Decameron' by Boccacio, now held in the library of Arsenal, in Paris, and dateable to 1432, depicts a white coloured box, which looks very much as though it is folded from paper. But is it? There is no text to tell us.

Detail from an illustration in 'The Decameron' by Boccacio


The Catherine of Cleves Box

The magnificent Flemish illustrated manuscript known as the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which dates to 1440, contains several illustrations of a sophisticated cut-and-fold box at the bottom of a page devoted to St Agatha. The pictures clearly show how the box is constructed but there is no textual evidence of the material used.


The Paper Boat?

A version of the book 'Tractatus de Spaera Mundi' written by John Holywood, an English mathematician and astronomer, who is also known as Johannes de Sacrobosco, published in Paris in 1498 contains a picture illustrating a solar eclipse which also shows what appear to be two Paper Boats floating in a stylised sea. But are they? There is no text to confirm (or deny) this identification.


Stunts, tricks and entertainments

1584 saw the publication of the book 'The Discoverie of Witchcraft' by Reginald Scott which included an explanation of two simple magical effects using folded paper, the Fold and Switch Effect and the Buddha Papers, variations of both of which are still in use by conjurors today.

The Buddha Papers effect is particularly interesting. It uses two squares folded into thirds in both directions, folded into packages, and glued back to back so that something placed in one package can be shown to have vanished from the other, the audience, of course, being unaware that there is more than one.

This is the earliest instance I know of where paper is folded into thirds, but it had long been done with cloth. For instance, an example of a corporal, a cloth placed on the altar below, and sometimes also above, the communion chalice, folded into thirds in both directions, is shown in Albrecht Dürer's engraving of the 'Mass of St Gregory' which dates from 1511.

Detail from Dürer's 'Mass of St Gregory'



Several other early books also mention stunts, tricks and entertainments using folded paper, one of which is, of course, the paperfolding entertainment called Troublewit, in which a large pleated sheet of paper is transformed into a variety of complicated three-dimensional forms. The earliest description of Troublewit appears in the book 'Sports and Pastimes: or, Sport for the City, and Pastime for the Country; With a touch of Hocus Pocus, or Leger-demain: Fitted for the delight and recreation of Youth' which was printed by H. B. for John Clark, at the Bible and Harp in West-Smithfield, London in 1676. The introductory sentence reads 'Trouble-wit has not its name for nought, and indeed is a very fine invention, by folding a sheet of Paper, as that by Art you may change it into twenty-six several forms or fashions'.


Troublewit subsequently featured in a series of books published in France, Spain, Italy and Germany during the 18th Century.

None of this, of course, is yet true recreational paperfolding. Conjurors and entertainers folded paper for a very practical purpose, that of earning money.


Tablecloth, Napkin and Serviette Folding

Troublewit possibly owes something to the techniques of the earlier art of folding tablecloths, napkins and serviettes to create fantastical table decorations for formal dining occasions.

The first book on this subject was the 'Trattato delle piegature', published in 1629. Its author was Matthias Jäger, who was German, but who published the work under his Italianised name of Mattia Giegher.

In general there seem to be very few connections between the folding of tablecloths, napkins and serviettes and the folding of paper.

The most obvious of the connections that do exist comes from the book 'L'Escole parfaite des officiers de bouche', which was published by J Ribou in Paris in 1662. It contains a chapter explaining how to fold animals, birds and fish from serviettes, which concludes with instructions for folding a 'Serviette pliee en form du Sainct Esprit', which is what is nowadays know as the Triple Blintz Basic Form, and a 'Serviette pliee en form de Croix de Lorraine' which is the design we nowadays know as the Cross. Both of these are folded from squares. The Triple Blintz Basic Form is, of course, Friedrich Frobel's third ground form, and the Cross one of the designs developed from it in the Frobelian tradition.


Designs folded from playing cards

Card Castles

The 18th Century also saw the emergence, in France, of another form of paperfolding, that of folding playing cards. This probably came about as a result of the use of playing cards to build Card Castles.

We first hear of these in an entry for 6th October 1606 in the journal of Jean Heroard who was the personal doctor of the young Louis XIII. The relevant part of the entry reads 'il s'amuse a faire des chateaux de cartes', in English 'he amused himself making card castles'. Most card castles we can see in paintings and engravings from the 18th Century were built, as they still are, using unfolded cards, but we know from an engraving by Jean Michel Liotard from 1744 that folded cards could also be used.


Playing Card Skittles

Folded cards were also sometimes used as skittles, in the way we use dominoes today, so that if one was pushed over all the others fell in turn. Lines of folded cards are shown in several paintings but the idea is particularly clear in this painting from 1871 by the German painter Johann Ernst Heinsius.


Playing Card Monks

By folding a card in half, cutting a slit in the folded edge, and folding the top half upwards, it was possible to create a hooded figure that looked like a capuchin monk. These Playing Card Monks or Capuchins de Cartes also appear in several paintings from the 18th Century, the earliest of which is a watercolour entitled 'Le Petit de Chevilly et Sa Soeur' by Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle which can be dated to somewhere between 1740 and 1760. Playing Card Monks were also used as skittles.

Detail from 'Le Petit de Chevilly et sa Soeur'


The Playing Card Cube

The most interesting of the designs made using folded playing cards that emerged during this period was, however, the Playing Card Cube, in which sets of six folded playing cards go together to form cubes, which can then be joined together into larger structures by interlocking their external tabs. In the 20th Century this design became famous under the name of the Business Card Cube. These cubes were featured in several paintings and prints made during the 18th Century, the clearest, though not the earliest, of which is shown below. The painter is unknown but possibly Louis Joseph Watteau (1731 - 1798).


This is still, of course, not quite recreational paperfolding as we know it today, since the main recreational aspect was the use of the cards as toys after they were folded, and not the paperfolding itself. However, it is interesting to see that folded paper (playing cards were made by laminating several layers of paper together) had become an acceptable form of plaything, at least among the wealthy upper classes.

Designs folded from oblongs

Apart from the Buddha Papers, early paperfolding designs are almost all folded from oblongs rather than squares. That was, after all, the normal shape in which paper was manufactured and sold.

Oblongs also form the basis of a type of design we can call fold, slit and fold designs. To make this type of design you first fold the paper, or card, in half, in zigzag fashion, or roll it up and flatten the roll, then cut one or more slits into one or both edges. The paper is then opened out and folded again (though often this folding is only minimal) to produce the design. The Playing Card Monk that we have already met is a design of this type.

How to Climb Through a Playing Card

One of the earliest known fold, slit and fold designs, commonly known nowadays as the ‘How to Climb Through a Playing Card’ effect, first appeared in in 'The Merry Companion' by Richard Neve, which was published in London in 1716.


Other Fold, Slit and Fold Designs

A similar method was used to make the little paper ruffles, or manchettes, that are used to decorate the ends of joints of meat, ‘bobeches’ or drip-catchers for candles, and, during the 19th century to make paper tinsel, decorative spills and Chevron design bookmarks as well. There is mention of paper ruffles on hams in the American periodical ‘Godey's Lady Book’ of December 1835 in a story entitled 'Mrs. Allington's Pic Nic'. The practice probably, however, goes much further back.

'The Girl's Own Book' by Lydia Marie Child, which was published by Clark Austin and Co in New York in 1833 contains a design made by rolling and slitting paper and the interesting information that 'In England, where they burn coal more than they do here, they fasten sheets of paper together and cut them in this way, to throw over the front of stoves during the summer season.'

Almost all of these fold, slit and fold designs were, of course, made for purely practical purposes, but, like the paper cone, they eventually gave rise to folds that were used for recreational purposes.


There are also, of course, many other designs folded from oblongs that we would now term as ‘pure origami’ designs, ie designs made without using cuts. There are four particularly important designs of this kind to consider, the paper banger, the paper hat (or hats), the paper boat and the paper plane.

The Paper Banger

The earliest mention of a paper banger appears in the book 'Onomatologia curiosa artificiosa et magica oder ganz natürliches Zauber-lexicon' published in 1759. This primitive noise-maker is constructed and performed by folding a sheet of oblong paper in half and then in half again, grasping the middle two layers and making a sharp throwing motion with the hand. The more sophisticated Paper Banger design that we are familiar with today, does not appear until the publication of 'De Kleine Papierwerkers 1: Wat men van een stukje papier al maken kan: Het vouwen' (The Little Paperworker 1: What one can make from a piece of paper: Folding) by Elise Van Calcar, in 1863.


Paper Hats

There are several early designs for paper hats folded from oblongs, all of which are closely related to each other.

The earliest definitive evidence for a folded paper hat of a known design comes from an oil painting by John Hill, titled ‘Interior of the Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield' which can be dated to around 1800, and shows two carpenters wearing flat-topped, square-shaped paper Workman's Hats. These were derived from waterbomb bases and could easily be sized to fit any particular head.

Detail from 'Interior of the Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield' by John Hill


The design that, in the UK, is commonly called the Newspaper Hat, first appears in 1832 in a cartoon ‘Armes du Grand Poulot’, which was published in the French satirical magazine 'La Caricature', No 63 of 12 January 1832 (for publishing which the editor of La Caricature, Charles Philipon, was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined 2000 francs).


Opening out the base of the Newspaper Hat, squashing it flat sideways and folding up the bottom points at back and front produces another, smaller and more solid design, the Pyramidal Hat. This first appears in the book ‘The Boy's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer Landells which was published in 1859.

There are many other variations.


The Paper Boat

Opening out the layers of the Pyramidal Hat produces the Paper Boat. The first time both an illustration and identifying text for this design appear together is also in Landells’ 1859 book.

There are several previous references to paper boats that are almost certainly this design (and, of course, there is also the 1490 illustration from the 'Tractatus de Spaera Mundi' that we have already mentioned).

(It is worth mentioning that while Paper Boats made in the West are mostly folded from oblongs, the similar designs made in Japan (see above) seem to have been mostly folded from squares.)


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, but which, it seems to me, are most likely to have been Paper Boats: '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'.


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, but it seems likely that this was the case.


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 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. From the fact it was folded from newspaper it seems likely that it was a Paper Boat.


The Paper Dart

The original paper plane was not conceived as a paper plane (aeroplanes did not yet exist) but as a paper dart or arrow. The earliest known illustration of the classic Paper Dart design appears in 'Spielbuch fur Knaben' by Hermann Wagner, which was published in Leipzig in 1864. The first explanation of how to fold one appears in ‘Every Little Boy's Book’, which was published in London in the same year.


The Patisserie Box

Simple paper boxes folded from oblongs had probably been used as cake and pastry cases for many years, but the earliest definitive evidence for this practice does not appear until 1889, when a design for such a box, now known as the Patisserie Box, appeared in 'La Science Pratique' by Gaston Tissandier. The text notes that this box is 'employe par les confiseurs' (used by confectioners).


Hexagonal and Rectangular Packets

Similarly, oblongs were also folded into suitable containers for powders and small objects, both to contain them and to keep them apart.

In the early 1990's a large number of rodent-chewed Hexagonal Packets containing seeds were discovered in the attic of The Woodlands, a historic estate in Philadelphia, once owned by the botanist William Hamilton (1735–1840). Some of these bear dates. The example pictured below is dated 1803.


A simpler, rectangular design was explained in 'La Ensenanza del Trabajo Manuel' by Pedro de Alcántara García and Teodosio Leal y Quiroga, which was published in Madrid in 1903, where it is described as 'the bag so useful in pharmacies', now sometimes called the Apothecaries’ Packet. This design is also, probably, of much greater age.


Designs folded from squares

We have already met the Buddha Papers magical effect, which first appears in 1584. Designs folded from squares are a little thin on the ground thereafter.

1614 saw the first performance of John Webster's play ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, the ms for which contains the words 'Our bodies are weaker than those Paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in ...' We do not know what kind of paper prison John Webster had in mind when he wrote those words. It is sometimes taken to be a reference to the design we now call the Waterbomb, which is folded from a square. This is possible, but in my view, quite unlikely at this early date. While there is evidence from the 19th century, that, at that time, Waterbombs were indeed used as prisons for flies, the paper container amplifying the sound of the fly buzzing, presumably to the amusement of little boys, we also have evidence that other kinds of paper construction were used for similar purposes. In fact, any kind of paper container, such as, for instance, a paper cone twisted shut at its open end, could act as a paper-prison in this way.

We have also already met the Cross, as a napkin fold, rather than a paper fold, which appeared in the book 'L'Escole parfaite des officiers de bouche', which was published in 1662.


Paper Flights for Darts

Better evidence for a design folded from a square can be found in 'Les Jeux et Plaisirs de l'Enfance' which was published in 1657. It contains 50 engravings of naked boys engaged in playing various, often very robust, games, one of which shows them playing darts. The flights of these darts appear to be made from squares of paper folded into waterbomb bases.


The Puzzle Purse

Another of the earliest designs folded from a square that we know of is the Puzzle Purse. The earliest evidence for this design that I can find outside Japan is a liebesbrief (love letter) in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia dated to 26th December 1769. (The date is in the bottom right corner of the illustration below.) The crease lines that divide the large square into a grid of nine smaller squares and allow it to be collapsed into a puzzle purse are clearly visible. The practice of decorating puzzle purses as love letters was probably brought to Philadelphia by immigrants from Germany.


The earliest evidence that the use of paper for making ad hoc playthings had spread from the aristocracy to the middle class (or at least, the book buying class) comes from ‘Manuel Complet des Jeux de Société' by Elisabeth Celnart which was published in Paris in 1827. This book not only contains sections on fold and cut playing card designs, the Capuchins de Cartes and the Playing Card Cube but also a chapter about ‘Figures de papier plies’ (paperfolded figures) which explains how to make a bird, a bird in a boat and a small bellows, all from squares. The bird is the design we now know as the Cocotte or Pajarita.


The Cocotte / Pajarita

The Cocotte / Pajarita design first appears in the historical record in a painting by Jeanne Elisabeth Chaudet Husson (1767 to 1832) entitled 'Marie-Laetitia Murat portant le buste de Napoléon', which can be dated to 1806. The same painting also features a Playing Card Monk / Capuchin.


The Cocotte / Pajarita design is also mentioned in the book 'Jugenderinnerungen eines altes Mannes' (Youth Memoirs of an Old Man), published by Wilhelm Herz Verlag Berlin in 1870, in which Wilhelm von Kügelgen describes how, in about 1812, when the family were living in Dresden, his then tutor, the painter Carl Adolf Senff (1785-1863), taught him, together with his siblings Gerhard and Adelheid, and the Leipzig friends Alfred and Julius Volksmann, to fold Krahen (crows). It is clear from the description that these Krahen were Cocottes / Pajaritas. The children learned to add further folds to develop these crows into Ross und Reiter (Horses and Riders), some of which still survive in museums in Germany.


However, Elisabeth Celnart was the first to describe how these birds were to be made, and her description is curiously different to the way in which we would fold the Cocotte / Pajarita today. She says, 'Take a square piece, folded lengthwise in half, then fold over the four corners, like making a dog-ear on the page of a book, so that your paper has a double diagonal or oblique line, and repeat the folds, or rather the small dog-ear corners: repeat this manoeuvre three times. When you fold for the third time pull out one of the dog-ear corners at the longest end, which makes the head of the bird, then the opposite end which forms the tail, then lift the two dog-ear corners on each side, which make the wings.' (Translation courtesy of Edwin Corrie) In simpler modern words, ‘blintz a square three times then pull out the internal paper to create points’. (You can, of course, do the same thing by blintzing a square just twice.)


The Double Boat and the Boat with Sail

From this time onwards Cocottes and two other closely related paperfolds, the Double Boat and the Boat with Sail, begin to appear in caricatures published in French satirical magazines. The earliest of these is the ‘Armes du Grand Poulut’ cartoon that we have already met. ‘La Caricature’ published a further caricature in December of the same year (1832), which showed Cocottes of varying sizes, advancing in line to attack a toy village. This drawing also shows two Double Boats and a Boat with Sail. It is worth noting that by this date these designs must have been sufficiently well established in French popular culture for them to be instantly recognised and their significance as symbols of childhood understood.


Both the Double Boat and the Boat with Sail can, like the Cocotte, be produced from a doubly, or triply, blintzed square using the method that Elisabeth Celnart gave in her book. This suggests a connection with a habit that had arisen in Germany in the second half of the 18th Century of folding square Patenbriefs (godparent sponsorship letters) into a double blintz form.


The reason Patenbriefs were folded in this way is not fully understood. It is possible that these paperfolds also functioned as packages to contain the gifts of money that godparents were duty bound to make. However, a doubly blintzed square does not make a very good container for money. Another suggestion is that the design of these foldable Patenbriefs was based on the traditional form of the horoscope that was cast at a child’s birth. Horoscopes of this kind are divided into twelve sections and the lines dividing those sections correspond to the crease lines of a doubly blintzed square. However, there is no evidence that horoscopes were ever folded along these lines. It remains a mystery.

A doubly blintzed Patenbrief from 1763

The existence of the doubly blintzed form of the Patenbrief, however, does give rise to a theory to account for the origin of the Cocotte, Double Boat and Boat with Sail. Pull out the internal flaps of a doubly blintzed Patenbrief, in the way explained in Celnart, and arrange them pointing outwards to both sides, fold the result in half, and you have the Double Boat. Manipulate the arms a little and you have the Boat with Sail. Reverse fold the sail and fold down the legs and you have the Cocotte. Unfortunately, this attractive theory remains conjectural since we have no historical evidence of a Patenbrief having been folded into any of these designs in this way.


Recreational paperfolding for girls and boys

The earliest book to treat paperfolding as a recreational activity for children was 'The Boy's Own Book' by William Clarke, which was published in London in 1828 and in New York in 1829. According to Robert William Henderson writing in his 'Ball, Bat, and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games', which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001, ’It was a tremendous contrast to the juvenile books of the period, which emphasized piety, morals and instruction of mind and soul; it must have been received with whoops of delight by the youngsters of both countries.’ The paperfolding content consisted of a description of the Paper Furnace effect (where a lead bullet wrapped in paper can be melted without the paper catching fire), Troublewit, the Buddha Papers, the Cherries Puzzle, and a second version of the same effect called the Card Puzzle.


Presumably inspired by this, 'The Girl's Own Book' by Lydia Marie Child, which we have already met, was published in New York in 1833. The paperfolding content of this book consisted of Paper Ball Baskets (how to make baskets of card and decorate them using quilling), Paper Rosette Baskets (baskets made by combining Froebel Stars), Alumets (ornamental paper spills), a way to make a circular Paper Screen (or fan) and several fold and cut effects including the Three Crosses (a version of the Fold and Cut Latin Cross effect).

This book also contains the following interesting passage: 'Folded Papers. There are a variety of things made for the amusement of small children by cutting and folding paper; such as boats, soldiers' hats, birds, chairs, tables, baskets, &c. but they are very difficult to describe; and any little girl who wishes to make them, can learn of some obliging friend in a very few moments.'


The repertoire of designs in books of this kind was at first very small but expanded gradually over time. For instance:

'The Boy's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer Landells, which was published in London and Boston in 1859 included diagrams for the Paper Boat, the Pyramidal Hat, the Catherine of Cleves Box (the first appearance of this design since 1440) and the Paper Parachute.

'The Girl's Own Toymaker' by Ebenezer Landells and Alice Landells which was published the following year, 1860, again in Boston and London, included diagrams for the Chain of Dolls and the Fold and Cut Paper Doily.

'Spielbuch fur Knaben' by Hermann Wagner, which was published in Leipzig in 1864 included the Seed Container and the Bellows as well as the earliest known illustration of the Paper Dart.

‘The Popular Recreator', which was published in London in 1873 included diagrams for the Chinese Junk (the earliest known for this design) and the Puzzle Purse. 


By the 1880s paperfolding designs began to appear in magazines aimed at children.

In the USA in 1881 St Nicholas magazine published a reader’s letter explaining and illustrating the Newspaper Ladder and, in the same issue, diagrams for the Fold and One Cut Latin and Maltese Crosses and showed how to arrange all the pieces released by the cutting out of the Latin Cross to form an Altar.

In England in 1886 the Boy’s Own Paper published diagrams for the Flapping Bird and a written description of how to make the Chinese Junk.

In the USA in 1887 St Nicholas magazine published another reader’s letter how to make a Japanese design, the Sanbo on Legs, under the somewhat surprising name of 'Nantucket Sinks'.

Friedrich Froebel - The Father of Paperfolding?

Friedrich Froebel, born 1782 and died 1852, was an educationalist from Thuringia, now part of Germany, who developed a theory of education through both teacher directed and self-directed play and founded what became known as the Kindergarten movement. He created a system of 'gifts', objects with which children could play, and by playing, learn. In the beginning there were just five of these gifts, but he later extended the system to include occupations, or as we would probably call them, activities, which would function in the same way. Paperfolding was an integral part of several of these occupations.

The occupations which included some element of paperfolding were:

1. Flechten (Weaving): In this occupation a frame is created by first folding a sheet of paper in half, cutting parallel slits into the folded edge to divide it into strips and then opening it out again. The strips are not loose but stay connected to the outside of the frame at both top and bottom. Other loose strips are woven across the frame, going under and over the upright strips, to create patterns. The way in which the frame is made is, of course, reminiscent of the fold, slit and fold designs we have already met.

2. Ausschneiden und Aufkleben (Cutting Out and Sticking On): In this occupation a square of paper is first folded into an eight-layer right angle isosceles triangle. Parts of the triangle are then cut away and it is unfolded back to the square, then mounted on card or another piece of paper to create a decoration. The parts cut away are then also unfolded and added to the decoration in a symmetric way (the principle being that nothing should be wasted).

3. Verschnüren (Interlacing): In this occupation flat geometric figures are created by folding and interweaving one, or several, paper strips.

4. Falten (Folding): This is paperfolding per se in which squares of paper are folded to create either simple mathematical forms, simple decorative forms or designs that can be interpreted as familiar objects. Froebel called these three types of designs Erkenntnisformen (Learning Forms), Schönheitsformen (Forms of Beauty) and Lebensformen (Forms of Life). (The distinction between Learning Forms, Forms of Beauty and Forms of Life was not only applied to the Falten occupation, but also to the designs children could produce using other occupations and gifts.) Froebel’s choice of the square as the starting shape for all these types of forms has influenced paperfolding ever since.

It seems likely that the first three occupations listed here were largely, or perhaps entirely, invented by Froebel himself. But what was his personal contribution to the occupation of Falten?


Learning Forms

In the case of the Learning Forms we are fortunate to have a fragment of Froebel’s own writings which explains his approach. This appeared in 'Friedrich Froebel's Gesammelte padogogische schriften' (Friedrich Froebel's Collected Educational Writings) edited by Wichard Lange, which was published in two parts in 1861. It sets out a way to fold and cut a square from an irregular piece of paper, explains how to fold the square in a few basic ways and how making and studying these folds reveals some basic mathematical principles.

We do not, unfortunately, have any similar writings from Froebel himself about either his Forms of Beauty or Forms of Life, and information about this has to be gathered, and often inferred, from the manuals written by his followers.


Forms of Beauty

The earliest illustrations we have of Forms of Beauty appear in ‘Manuel pratique des jardins d'enfants de Frédéric Froebel', which was compiled by J F Jacobs and published in Brussels and Paris in 1859. The patterns illustrated are all derived from a square that has been blintzed, turned over and blintzed again, which I call the Double Blintz Basic Fold. This form has four triangular flaps on one side and four square flaps on the other. Either set of flaps can be folded in various ways to produce Folds of Beauty. All of them are not only folded from squares but are also themselves square in shape and are therefore easy to glue in groups into albums or exercise books.

'Kindergarten Practice' by Mary Gurney, a substantially abridged translation of 'Die Praxis Des Kindergartens' by Auguste Koehler, which was published in 1873, gives 18 Forms of Beauty which the author says were created by Froebel himself. All of them are developed from the Double Blintz Basic Form.


Forms of Life

The situation with Forms of Life is less clear. The earliest of the manuals, 'A Practical Guide to the English Kinder Garten' by Joh and Bertha Ronge, which was published in London in 1855, only touches on Forms of Life in passing. The authors say, ‘The material used is a square of paper. Each child, having received his paper, is allowed at first to form any object at pleasure, as in the other games. This being done, the teacher commences her work of development by giving illustrations of different forms, such as a box, basket, ship, boat, stars &c.’

The 'Manuel pratique des jardins d'enfants de Frédéric Froebel', from 1859, which we have already met, contains two lists of Forms of Life designs, numbering 45 in all. Not all these designs can be identified, but it is clear that they are mainly, if not entirely, derived from four basic folds, the Double Blintz Basic Form, The Triple Blintz Basic Form (made by turning the Double Blintz Basic Fold over and blintzing for a third time and for which, you will remember, we already have evidence from 1662), the Doubly Blintzed Square with all the internal points pulled out (what we would now call the Windmill Base) and the Triply Blintzed Square with all the internal points pulled out (what we would now call the Blintzed Windmill Base).

The forms derived from the Doubly Blintzed Square include the Double Boat, the Cocotte / Pajarita and the Boat with Sail which we know predate Froebel’s invention of the Falten occupation. However, other designs derived from this basic fold, the Windmill, the Cigar-Case, the Vase, the Boat with Fishbox, the Portfolio, The Open Box, The Frame, The Mirror and the Gondola all appear here in the historical record for the first time.

Most of the forms derived from the Triply Blintzed Square, the Double Hulled Boat, the Junk Box, the Picture Frame, the Looking Glass are also previously unknown, the exception being the design with which the sequence culminates, the gondola with sails, which is almost certainly the Chinese Junk.

The forms derived from the Doubly Blintzed Square (or more correctly those forms which can be identified – since some cannot), among them the Salt-Cellar, the Pepperpot, the Travel Bag, the Flat Flower and the Collar, are also, again with one possible exception, previously unknown. The exception in this case is the Salt Cellar. A reference to ‘paper salt-cellars’ occurs in the November 1836 issue of ‘The Lady's Book’, a women's magazine published in Philadelphia, USA. Unfortunately, since there is no illustration it is impossible to be know whether these paper salt-cellars are the design familiar to us, or simply paper screwed into a basic dish-like form.

Many of the forms derived from the Triple Blintz Basic Form, the Muff, the Pair of Boots, the Jacket, the Trousers are all also mentioned here for the first time, the exception being the Cross, which we have already met as a napkin fold in 1662..


What are we to make of all this? Were all these designs invented by Froebel (in which case he should surely be a contender for the title of Father of Paperfolding) or by his immediate followers, or had they previously existed but never been mentioned or pictured before? The answer is, of course, that we do not know, but it seems most likely that most of them, at least, are discoveries of Froebel and his immediate followers, and in particular those developed from the Doubly and Triply Blintzed Basic Forms. Elsewhere in the literature these two forms are called the second and third groundforms and are attributed to Froebel himself.


The Chinese Junk

There is one anomaly to consider. One of the illustrations in the book "Hanenpoot" which Willem Bilderdijk wrote and illustrated for his young son Julius Willem in 1806, shows a version of the Chinese Junk design that is blunt at one end and pointed at the other, the pointed end being arranged as a continuation of the line of the main deck of the boat. As far as I am aware there is no other illustration of this type of Chinese Junk in the Western European literature. All the others have either two blunt ends, or, if is pointed, it sticks upwards like a sail. There are however several illustrations of Chinese Junk like designs from Japan, the earliest dating to 1704, which do have pointed ends arranged in the main plane of the design. These are usually referred to as takara-bune or ‘treasure ships’. It is possible, therefore, that the version drawn by Willem Bilderdijk was somehow imported from Japan and that there is no direct connection between this 1806 illustration and the Froebelian version. However, the evidence is clearly inconclusive and for now at least it remains a mystery.


The Pig

'Die Praxis Des Kindergartens' by Auguste Koehler, which was published in 1873, and which we have already met in translation, states that in Froebel's time only one method of developing a square was known, that of folding the corners inwards (ie blintzing the square). The author says that he developed a second method, that of folding the edges inwards, (ie bookfolding the square) which was published in his earlier work relating to paperfolding. (The footnote identifies this as 'Kindergarten and Elementarklasse. II Jahrang. Weimar. Bohlau 1861', but I have not been able to trace a copy of this work.) To modern folders this may seem an unimportant distinction, but this discovery seems to have led Auguste Koehler to design the Pig, which is first published in this work (or, perhaps, in the earlier work which I cannot find). Modern folders are not generally over-impressed with the Pig design, yet it was revolutionary in its time. In their book 'Froebel's Occupations', published in 1896, Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith call it ‘the crowning glory of the sequence, a star of the purest ray and the first magnitude.' And so it was.

The Pig

Forms of Life in the Kindergarten Manuals

Froebel’s original conception of the paperfolding occupations seem to have been that they should be quite limited in their scope. All the occupations had a specific purpose. They were not general activities to provide interest for children in the kindergarten classroom, but activities intended to allow the child to acquire specific pieces of knowledge.

In practice, however, over the years, the original ideas and material for these occupations became vastly expanded. This seems to have happened in two ways.

Firstly, children (and their teachers) were actively encouraged to experiment. Froebelian occupations were not (at least at first) a sterile reproduction of existing designs (although that did tend to be the effect the manuals had). New designs were invented and shared and became part of the repertoire. Old designs fell out of fashion and favour. We have already seen that this happened, for instance, with the Pig.

Secondly, designs were absorbed into the Froebelian repertoire from outside. For instance, 'De Kleine Papierwerkers 1' by Elise Van Calcar, published in 1863, which we have already met, includes illustration or mention of the Talking Fish, the Waterbomb, the Bellows, the Paper Banger, the Puzzle Purse and the Pipe Cap, none of which are developed from Froebel’s groundforms. The first four appear here in the historical record for the first time, so could conceivably have been recently invented within the kindergarten context (though I find that unlikely), but there is definitive evidence that the last two were already known and so have been imported into the Froebelian repertoire from outside. There are many other instances where we can similarly show that existing paperfolding designs were incorporated into the Froebelian repertoire. (Something which also happened in Japan.)

Of course, it is likely that a child who learned a paperfold at kindergarten might then reproduce it at home, teach it to their siblings and friends, who would then in turn show it to their friends etc. There is no direct evidence of that process occurring but we know that this kind of meme-like dissemination of designs has occurred widely in our own lifetimes, for instance with the Paper Dart and the Fortune Teller, and it would be surprising if it had not also occurred in earlier times.

In this way, I suspect, the use of paperfolding occupations in kindergarten education contributed both to the expansion of the paperfolding design repertoire and to the recreational use of paperfolding as children’s play.

Paperfolding as an aid to manual training

In 1849 the French publication 'Bulletin de la Societe D'Encouragement Pour L'Industrie Nationale' published a report by the mathematician Theodore Olivier, titled 'Enseignement Industriel - Geometrie Pratique', which explained a new method, discovered by Martin Chatelain, of teaching practical geometry using paperfolding. The report recommends its use in the teaching of apprentices. Full details of the method are, unfortunately, not given.

On 27th July 1882 the French government minister, Jules Ferry, issued a decree regulating the pedagogical organisation and the study plan of public primary schools (Arrêté du 27 juillet 1882 réglant l’organisation pédagogique et le plan d’études des écoles primaires publiques) which made it mandatory for French primary schools to include manual work (activities designed to aid the development of manual skills, which would then be useful in an industrial and economic context) in their curricula. There is no specific mention of paperfolding in this decree (although it does mention cardboard modelling /cartonnage) but a second decree issued a day later (Arrete reglant l'organisation pedagogique des maternelles publique et les programmes d'enseignement) did mention ‘pliage’ (paperfolding) several times. Many primary schools subsequently began to include paperfolding as part of their manual work syllabus and, as had happened with Froebelian kindergarten education, publishers then began issuing manual work textbooks to assist teachers incorporating this element in their lessons. Many of these textbooks included paperfolding elements.

For instance, 'Cours de Travail Manuel (Pour les Garcons) - Premiere Partie - Cours Elementaire' by A Planty, which was published in Paris in 1887, explains how to fold a Chapeau du Gendarme (a version of the Newspaper Hat), a simple wallet, the Table, The Windmill, the Cocotte, some strip folded letters and various decorations that in a Froebelian context we would call Forms of Beauty.

In a more formal context, the 'Bulletin de la Société de Protection des Apprentis', an official document issued by the Société de Protection des Apprentis et des Enfants Employes par les Manufactures in Paris in 1891, sets out educational syllabuses which make use of paperfolding. It includes, among other folds, the Waterbomb, the Patisserie Box and ‘La Grenouille Japonaise’ (otherwise known as the Blow-Up Frog).

Initially, these textbooks are all published in French but magazine articles and books about manual work, including paperfolding, begin to appear in Spanish from 1903 onwards. 'La Ensenanza del Trabajo Manuel' by Pedro de Alcántara García and Teodosio Leal y Quiroga, was published in Madrid in 1903, closely followed by ‘Guia Practica del Trabajo Manual Educativo' by Ezequiel Solana, which was published in 1904. I do not know if these Spanish publications were also produced in response to a change in educational law, or whether manual work became popular in Spanish schools for some other reason.

It seems obvious that the result of teaching paperfolding in schools as a means of increasing manual dexterity must also, surely, have acted to increase the recreational use of paperfolding as children’s play.

The Cocotte / Pajarita in France and Spain

Of all the paperfolds that were widely known in the 19th Century the Cocotte / Pajarita was the one that was most deeply embedded in popular culture. We have already seen that the earliest evidence for its existence comes from France, although it is possible that it originated from the practice of folding Patenbriefs into a doubly blintzed form, and that it appeared in several satirical cartoons in the magazine ‘La Caricature’ in 1832.

While knowledge of how to fold the Cocotte /Pajarita, and enjoyment of it as a toy, was not limited to the French, it was in France that images featuring Cocottes appeared most regularly. The word ‘cocotte’ can mean a hen or a casserole dish but can also mean a high-class prostitute. It can also, like the Newspaper Hat, which has similarly been absorbed into popular culture, be used as a symbol of childhood or childishness. The design of the Cocotte is usually interpreted as a bird, but it is also often seen as a horse (or perhaps a hobby-horse) and images of people riding Cocottes as though they are horses are common.

The Cocotte is used as a symbol, carrying all these various meanings, in many other caricatures, in paintings, in literature and on postcards throughout the 19th Century, and well into the 20th as well. I have collected many of these references on the Cocotte / Pajarita pages on my Public Paperholding History Project site. Just a few of them are shown below.

The image below is a detail from a print by Charles Bargue (after Auguste Toulmouche), which is in the collection of the British museum and can be dated to 1860. It shows a governess (probably) building a Card Castle while the children look on, but there are also a number of folded Cocottes on the table.


‘Les Cocottes' by Paul Mahalin, was published in Paris in 1864. It contains observations of the daily habits of Parisian prostitutes and a discussion of their role in society. The frontispiece pictures two different kinds of cocotte.

Detail from the Frontispece of 'Les Cocottes' by Paul Mahalin


The pornographic novel 'Souvenirs d’une cocodette', supposedly a memoir by the main character, Aimee, but in fact by Ernest Feydeau, and first published in Paris in 1870, contains a frontispiece showing a Cocotte covering, or perhaps censoring, the nakedness of the cocodette of the title.


This postcard shows Leopold II of Belgium riding a Cocotte. The crossed out 'C' that makes the name 'Cleopold' seems to be a reference to the ballet dancer Cleo de Mérode. The image probably dates from 1896 when Leopold II attended the ballet and saw Mérode dance. The 61-year-old Belgian King became enamoured with the 21-year-old ballet star, and she became his mistress.


The Cocotte design also became absorbed into popular culture in Spain, as the Pajarita.

From 1874 onwards, drawings of Pajaritas feature frequently in the work of the Catalan artist Apeles Mestres (who also drew the earliest image we have of the Flapping Bird – see below).

An article entitled 'Pajaritologia', by Senesio Delgado, which uses the folding of Cocottes / Pajaritas to make points about art and contemporary thought, was published in the Spanish satirical magazine 'Madrid Comico on 13th January 1894.

Pajaritas were also an important part of the paperfolding odyssey of the famous Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (also see below), but only really seem to have come to the fore in popular Spanish culture after the 1920s.


Japonisme, the Blow-up Frog and the invention of the Flapping Bird

After Japan came out of her self-imposed period of isolation in 1853, Japanese design, particularly in the form of prints, furniture and ceramics, began to have a huge influence in Western Europe, particularly in France, and it became very fashionable to own Japanese objects.

The Paper Crane

In 1868 (or possibly 1869) a small number of enthusiasts for things Japanese formed a drinking club in Paris called the 'Société de Jing-lar'. Each member was issued with a membership card, three of which have survived. These membership cards are illustrated with drawings of orizuru, or Paper Cranes. This is the first time images of this design had appeared in the West. Unfortunately, we have no idea how the founders of Société de Jing-lar came to know about the Paper Crane or even whether or not they knew how to fold it.

There are similar images in other publications dating from 1888 and 1891 but diagrams for the Paper Crane do not appear until 1902, when they were published in an issue of the children’s magazine ‘Mon Journal’.


The Blow-up Frog

The influence of Japanese design in the West was reinforced by Japan’s participation in the Expositions Universelle held in Paris in 1867 (where there were two Japanese pavilions, one official and one private, funded by the Satsuma family), 1878, 1889 and 1900.

Japan’s participation in the 1889 Exposition was particularly important from the point of view of paperfolding history. The magazine La Nature Issue 852 of 28th September 1889 contained an article headed 'Recreation scientifiques' and subheaded 'La grenouille japonaise en papier' (The Japanese Paper Frog) which explains how to make the Blow-up Frog (though the author does not appear to be aware that the frog can be inflated).

The article is interesting not only for the diagrams it contains, but also for the incidental information it provides. In his introductory paragraphs the author, Dr Z…, states, roughly, 'The Ministry of Public Education of Japan has sent to the Exhibition an interesting series of industrial and artistic designs ... made by children of both sexes in the country's school rooms ... but one can notice others which are not less curious. These are the recreational works done by the small children of the Azabu private school in Tokyo. The series of displays showing cut out and coloured papers combined to make flowers, butterflies or marquetry designs are quite attractive and our children would probably be happy to know how to make such pretty things. In France, it is true, we also know the charming game of folding paper. The classic Cocotte, the box and the galiote etc., are popular here but we must agree that the Japanese have more ingenious models. The Frog that we put in front of our young readers is an example’, and, ‘We also noticed in the exhibition other designs among which were the crab from red paper, the junk and the hat of Daimios, the parrot etc., The way these designs are made has many points of resemblance to the Frog.'

Another article by 'Dr Z... in La Nature, in issue 1093 of 12th May 1894, contained an opening paragraph which read, roughly, 'We have previously published several recreations that can be made with paper; we gave the way of making a bird, whose wings can be made to move. This invention is Japanese; the Japanese made it known, with great success, at the Exposition of Paris in 1889.' This is not impossible, of course, though it is unlikely since footnote 1 of the article makes it clear that the previous publication of the Flapping Bird in 'La Nature' was in 1885.


The Flapping Bird

The 1885 article in La Nature was the first time that diagrams for the Flapping Bird, there called ‘Un Oiseau Mecanique en Papier’, had been published, but a drawing of the same paper bird had previously appeared in a pictorial story by Apeles Mestres which is clearly dated 2nd August 1883, though without any specific indication that it was an action design. The words below the picture of the flapping bird read, 'This story was told to me by a swallow that came flying from paper country.’

Detail from a pictorial story by Apeles Mestres


We do not know how or where the Flapping Bird was created. The La Nature articles presents the Flapping Bird as a Japanese invention, brought to Europe by conjurors. The difficulty with accepting this is that the Flapping Bird does not appear in any Japanese sources until 1957, which it surely would have done if it were Japanese in origin. It is therefore likely that the Flapping Bird’s Japanese origin was invented to make the design more interesting to La Nature’s readers (a not unknown phenomenon of Japonisme) and that it was in fact discovered in Western Europe, perhaps by someone who was trying to remember how to fold the Paper Crane, who then found, remarkably, that the wings of this misremembered, essentially simplified, version would flap if the tail were pulled.


The paperfolding of Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno, born in 1864 and died in 1936, was a Spanish academic, author and thinker who was also influential in the development of paperfolding in Spain and beyond.

In 1888 he published an account, 'Historia de Unas Pajaritas de Papel', of how, when he was 10 years old, he and his cousin folded and played with paper pajaritas and other toys during the bombing of Bilbao during the Third Carlist War.


1n 1902 the Argentinean magazine ‘Caras y Caretas’ published a letter from Unamuno which was illustrated by a picture of what he called the 'most perfect paper pajarita known', 'although, to be sure, starting out from other figures'. The design is developed from a bird base and appears to be an early version of his Avechucho, made with a simpler head and beak than later versions. We do not know with certainty what the 'other figures' it was derived from were, but, the obvious candidates are either the Paper Crane or the Flapping Bird.

Unamuno amd his 'most perfect paper pajarita known'


In April of the same year Unamuno’s second novel 'Amor y pedagogía' was published. The original manuscript for this novel was shorter than the publisher required so it was lengthened by the addition of a foreword, an epilogue and a treatise on the Cocotte / Pajarita design titled 'Apuntes para un tratado de cocotología'. This treatise was attributed to Don Fulgencio, one of the main characters in the story. Much of it seems to be deliberately obscure. (This treatise may have been inspired by the article 'Pajaritologia', by Senesio Delgado, which had been published in 1894. It is possible that Unamuno called his paperfolding ‘cocotologia’ because the more obvious, more Spanish, term, ‘pajaritalogia’ had already been used.)


Unamuno went on to devise a number of other designs from the bird base, including several other birds, a seal, a teapot and an Empire style table.

Photograph from Estampa showing a few of Unamuno's designs

Unamuno’s design work inspired the Spanish / Argentinean paperfolding tradition that was to become so important during the 1940s and 1950s.


Back to the conjurors

As we have seen, the Blow-up Frog first became known in the West at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 (the event for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed). This same exhibition, and in particular the display of paperfolds made by schoolchildren that were on display in the Japanese Pavilion, seems also to have been the main inspiration for a series of articles written by the conjuror Alber (real name Jean Jacques Édouard Graves) and published in the French children’s magazine ‘Mon Journal’ between 1899 and 1902. These articles contained explanations of, and diagrams for, several paperfolds of Japanese origin which are not previously known in the West, among them, Le Lampion (the Mushikago), le Kiosque Japonais, the Palanquin (the Kago), the Lily and a Crab made using cuts. His book ‘Les petits secret amusant’, published in 1908, later brought many of the same designs to a wider audience.

Alber attributed his detailed knowledge of these designs to a Japanese friend variously named as Mlle Kawala, Mlle Kawada or Madame Kawada. This is somewhat odd if 'Mlle Kawala' etc was a real person and it is therefore possibly that she is apocryphal and that Alber learned his designs from some other source.


The importance of Alber’s articles and books lies not only in the Japanese connection but also that in researching and writing them he was initiating a trend. From around the end of the following decade it became common for conjurors to write books about paperfolding, partly as a way of earning money, but also partly, I believe, because the act of folding something out of a piece of paper has the same appeal as, for instance, making a rabbit appear from an empty hat.

1919 saw the publication of ‘Paper Tricks’ by Will Goldston, 1920 of ‘Paper Magic’ by Will Blyth, 1922 ‘Houdini’s Paper Magic’ by Harry Houdini (though possibly ghost written by Walter B Gibson), 1923 ‘More Paper Magic’, again by Will Blyth. The most influential of all these books, ‘Fun with Paper Folding’ by William D Murray and Francis J Rigney, followed five years later in 1928.

The first four of these books are mostly collections of paperfolding and papercutting effects that are in some way magical, or at least, suitable for presentation as entertainment. The last book is different. As the title implies it is a collection of paperfolds, some Froebelian classics, some the authors' own designs, some possibly collected by William Murray during his travels in China, which are intended to be folded for recreation, or for 'fun', as the title puts it.

With the publication of 'Fun with Paper Folding', we have reached the point where paperfolding has begun to become a popular pastime and recreation.