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A Miscellaneous Collection of Jottings on the History of Origami

The great divide between the old paperfolding and the new came around 1950, when the work of Akira Yoshizawa came to be known. Yoshizawa's work appeared first in Japan with the publication of his series of astrological figures in the picture magazine "Asahi Graf" in the issue for January, 1952. His work then appeared in the West remarkably soon afterwards, with the exhibition of the work of Yoshizawa at the Stadtlich Museum in Amsterdam in November 1955. It was Yoshizawa who created the idea of CREATIVE paperfolding (Sasaku Origami) and he invented a whole range of new designs which owed nothing to the origami of the past. In particular, he explored the potentialities of the Bird Base and rediscovered the "Sideways Turn" previously used in Japan only in the traditional Crow. With this technique, he folded a whole menagerie of animals and birds. Still, however, Yoshizawa had to create his four-legged animals using two squares of paper. It was not until the development of "Blintzed" Bases in the mid 1950s by other folders and particularly by the American, George Rhoades, that it became possible to fold animals with four legs and a head and a tail without cutting the paper. Before that only very primitive animals with four legs were possible, including the famous traditional pig. Yoshizawa himself related how he had folded many three-legged quadrupeds, but he had destroyed them all!

I must, however, qualify my statement that "modern" origami started solely with Akira Yoshizawa. He did, in fact have a predecessor in Spain in the early years of the 20th Century. This was the famous Spanish Philosopher, Miguel Unamuno, the Rector of Salamanca University, who died at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War, on 31st, December, 1936. Unamuno had a philosophic interest in paperfolding, and in 1902 he wrote a humorous treatise on the Spanish paper bird known as the pajarita (known as a dog in Japan). Later, however, he discovered the bird base, and like Yoshizawa after him, he discovered the "sideways turn" and using it developed a series of somewhat angular birds and animals. Unamuno's folds were angular and lacked the grace and liveliness of Yoshizawa's creations. Unamuno had followers in Spain and also in Argentina and there was quite a large paperfolding movement in both countries. However, it did not extend beyond the Spanish speaking countries and the modern paperfolding movement did not derive from it. Only later was the Hispanic movement absorbed into the general Western movement.

Modern paperfolding may be looked upon as a struggle to break out of the tyranny of the square. Yoshizawa and Unamuno developed the use of the bird base. Yoshizawa began to use two squares of paper. Then the blintzed bases were invented, followed by different techniques, such as box pleating, until, nowadays, there is scarcely anything that cannot be folded from an uncut square or rectangle of paper.

Before 1950 (about forty years earlier in Spain), paperfolding was frankly primitive. I will give a brief outline of the development of Origami in Japan.

The Development of Origami in Japan

Japanese folding has always been divided between ceremonial folding and recreational or play folding. Ceremonial folding (as of tsutsumi and noshi) is very interesting, but it is quite distinct from recreational origami and I shall not discuss it here. However, there was one small group of folds which bridge the gap between ceremonial and recreational folding. I refer to the Mecho and Ocho Butterflies, which were and are used in the Shinto marriage ceremony. They are classed as ceremonial folds, but in form, they are more like recreational folds. As far as can be seen, they date back to the Heian era, but I have never seen any concrete evidence of this, still less, a firm date. The butterflies seem to have evolved from the pleated paper covers used to cover sake bottles. They use the so-called "waterbomb base" and I would put them at the very start of recreational folding. They should have a place in any exhibition.

Apart from the Mecho and Ocho butterflies, there is no evidence of Japanese recreational folding until 1600. It may be conjectured that it started much earlier, and the Muromachi period has been suggested. Again, however, I have seen no proper evidence whatsoever. From 1600, however, there is ample evidence of Japanese recreational folding and this has been put together by Satoshi Takaga in a book (more like a large booklet) which has a title in Japanese, which I understand translates as Origami from the Classics, or words to that effect. The book was published by Nippon Origami Association (NOA) in 1993.

This book gives illustrations of traditional models from kimonos and other clothing and prints and books from 1600 onwards. They include boats, boxes, hats, cranes and indeed, many of the traditional models with which we are familiar. This is what we generally think of as children's folding, and the same models are familiar today in both Japan and in the West. An exhibition should include a selection of these traditional models.

Parallel with the traditional models, from the end of the 18th century, there grew up in Japan a tradition of adult folding. The first evidence is in the famous book Senbazuru Orikata published in 1797. It shows how to fold a whole series of linked cranes, connected by their beaks or wing-tips. In the same year and from the same source came the "Chushingura Origkata". This is not a book, but a printed sheet, showing how to fold a series of human figures from the famous play. The style of folding is quite primitive and uses many cuts.

Several other books or papers from the same source are listed in these two publications, but none has ever been found. Nevertheless, they may have been published and then lost. The famous Kayaragusa (or Kan no mado, so-called) from around 1850 is not a printed book, but a private hand-written collection of information apparently made by someone for his private use. The two volumes dedicated to origami contain both ceremonial and recreational origami. Some of the recreational origami is of the same style as in the Chushingura Orikata. This may be a collection of models from the missing books or from the same source. A historical exhibition of origami should include models from Senbazuru Orikata, Chushingura Orikata and Kayaragusa, as examples of the 19th century Japanese tradition of adult Origami.

We have futher light on this from the Uchiyama family. You may have heard that Kosho Uchiyama died last March in his 80s. A Buddhist priest living in a monastery, Uchiyama was of the same generation as Yoshizawa, and shared an interest in Origami. In 1958 he published a colorful book of Origami for children called "Origami Zukan", which was compared at the time with Yoshizawa's "Origami Tokuhon", which was published the previous year, 1957. The difference was that Uchiyama's book contained more cutting than that of Yoshizawa. Although Uchiyama had some fine models, the standard of his folding was not as fine as that of Yoshizawa. Neverthelesss, he was a close rival and Kosho Uchiyama went on to publish several more books for adults and children, which (according to the newly prevailing ideas, frowning upon it), contained much less cutting.

Kosho Uchiyama's father was Michio Uchiyama, who wrote several origami books. They not only made use of cutting, but Michio positively encouraged cutting. He said it made more efficient use of the paper and avoided having most of the paper bulkily folded up within the model. Michio also folded a large collection of traditional sitting dolls, all of which used cutting. He was also known for folding many-sided boxes, which did not use cutting.

Michio Uchiyami learned to fold from his mother, who was a lady in waiting at the court of a noble in the 19th century. She built up a collection of origami models, which, unfortunately, were lost. Some were lost in an earthquake, and the remainder were lost in the wartime bombing of Tokyo. Kosho Uchiyama could remember seeing his grandmother's models, and he deeply regretted their loss.

The Kayaragusa was rediscovered in the early 1960s. When Kosho Uchiyama saw a copy of it, he recognised it as the kind of folding done by his grandmother. So there appears to be a tradition of adult folding from the Senbazuru Orikata and Chushingura Orikata, through the Kayaragusa and Uchiyama's grandmother, to Michio Uchiyama and ultimately to Kosho Uchiyama.

I think that any historical exhibition should try to contrast the traditional, or children's folding, with this parallel stream of adult folding in Japan, leading up to Uchiyama and to Yoshizawa, who broke the old mold and started the revolution which led to modern origami.

The Development of Origami in Germany

In these notes, I have not dealt with paperfolding in Europe. I will try to do this in a later section. I have mentioned Unamuno. The other great name in Europe is Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the German founder of the Kindergarten Movement. Froebel introduced paperfolding into the kindergartens as one of the children's recreations, but it was developed mainly by his followers after his death.

The Kindergarten Movement was taken to Japan by a German lady, and it had considerable success there. Paperfolding was taught to the children and became merged with the traditional Japanese Origami. In fact, many of the models were the same. Children's origami was brought from the home and into the schools. Before about 1880, the usual Japanese words for paperfolding were "Orikata" or "Orisui" or even "Orimono" and I have, myself, suggested that the word "Origami" was adopted by the Japanese kindergartens as a direct translation of the German "Papierfalten". This started a debate in Japan and I was probably wrong in my theory. But there is still some uncertainty about just why "origami" ws adopted as the general word for paperfolding in Japan. It seems to have been adopted by the primary schools which had different origins than those of the kindergartens.

Froebel himself never knew the Japanese word "Origami", and it was never used in the Kindergarten Movement in the West. Lillian Oppenheimer, the founder of the Origami Center in New York in 1958 deliberately adopted the work "Origami" instead of "Paperfolding", because she thought it was a more attractive word. The word "Origami" was also used in the titles of a number of English-language books about paperfolding printed in Japan in the 1950s (some of them by Isao Honda). But Lillian Oppenheimer was very influential in the growth of the modern origami movement and it is largely because of her that we use the word "Origami" today.

I have incidentally mentioned Isao Honda and feel I should say more about him. He was a Japanese paperfolder, about thirty years older than Yoshizawa and Uchiyama. He made collections of traditional models and published them. His first book, in Japanese, appeared in 1931. A later book, Origami Shuko published in 1944, contained a section of Yoshizawa's models (under Yoshizawa's name). Honda also devised variants of Yoshizawa's models and published them later without any acknowlegement. In the 1950s and 1960s he published about twenty English-language books, all in the same style, culminating with his huge "World of Origami", in 1965. But be warned that all of Honda's work was either traditional or derivative and he added nothing of his own creation to the start of the modern movement. Nevertheless, the publication of his admittedly very attractive books helped to give publicity to paperfolding in the West.

In Part Two I will write about early paperfolding in the West and then about the Origami Center and the revolution in paperfolding brought about in the early 1960s. One of the crucial factors in the history of paperfolding in the West was the coming of the Flapping Bird, apparently introduced by Japanese stage magicians in the 1870s or 1880s.

This time, I thought I would write something about the history of paperfolding in Europe up to about 1945.

As I have said, Paperfolding in Europe MAY have been brought from the East, with the coming of paper making (which certainly did come from the East through the Arabs) or along the Silk Route with the traders through Asia, or through the sailors travelling by ship between Europe and the East. The Dutch, especially traded with the Far East and retained a very tenuous connection with Japan throughout the period of Japan's self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, through the permitted Dutch trading post on an island outside Nagasaki. However, we still have no evidence at all that European folding came from the East. It is equally possible that because paper can only be folded in a limited number of simple ways, that European folding spontaneously arose in Europe. We do know that pleated folding of cloth existed in the West since Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods.

I will say something more about cloth folding in Europe, before I go on to paperfolding, because the folding of cloth and of paper are clearly related. During the 16th Century and throughout the 17th Century, there developed in Europe a tradition for folding table napkins into elaborate models of animals and ships and other objects in the palaces of royalty and the great nobility. Napkins were pleated and cross-pleated and moulded into elaborate creations which decorated the tables at banquets. This was not much like modern paperfolding, but some of the figures of paperfoldinl such as the waterbomb base are found in the manuals on the subject. The napkins were pleated and cross-pleated and the moulded into shape, often being stitched together with red thread. Possibly the tradition of folding table napkins as done at the present day derives from this period of folding. What is remarkable about it is that is parallels the Japanese ceremonial foldsN0shi and tsutsumi) in that like them it used pleating and was used for ceremonial, not recreational purposes.

Paper making was introduced into Europe much later than into Japan. It was brought by the Moors, who were converted to Islam by the Arabs. Papermaking reached Spain in 1036, Italy in 1256 and France in 1348.. So there could not be any paperfolding in Europe before the 13th Century, except perhaps in Spain, the southern part of which was then controlled by the Moors. But as I have said, we have no evidence that the Moors practised paperfolding.

Bearing in mind this background, we have only glimpses of paperfolding in Europe until the 19th Century.

One of the earliest pieces of "evidence" is the use of the pattern of the windmill base for astrological diagrams in the south of Spain in the 12th Century. Horoscopes were drawn up based on a person's birth and we know that baptismal certificates were later foldid into a double or treble blintz, which is related to the Windmill base. But the 12th century seems early for paperfolding in Spain and we cannot be sure of this as proper evidence.

A second piece of evidence is from a book printed in Venice in 1490, namely "Tractatus de Spaera Mundi" by Johannes de Sacrobusto. It has a diagram of the world showing ships sailing on a sea in front of a town. The ships look VERY like the simple little boats which are folded by children everywhere from the simple paper hat. But again, the picture is ambiguous and cannot be relied upon with certainty.

In 1614, the English playwrightJ ohn Webster produced his play "The Duchess of Malfi". He refers to the paper prisons in which small boys capture flies to increase the loudness of the buzzing. This is the water-bomb of paper balloon and it is known from modern China, from modern Egypt as well as England in 1614. It is convincing evidence that paperfolding was known in England in 1614.

Another glimpse is of a boy, Guillermo Pen of Spain in 1757, who made his friends kites, boats , ships, birds and many other things out of paper. There are other similar reports from different parts of Eurpoe about the same time.

In 1806 a clear drawing of the paper "Chinese Junk" was made in Holland. It certainly shows that this model was known in Europe at that time. Since it was in Holland, it may have been brought there from th4e East

Freidrich Froebel, the educator was born in 1782 and we know that he played with paperfolding as a boy in Germany. Some paperfolded soldiers, some on foot and some on horseback actually exist in a museum in Nuremburg in Germany. We can assume that by then paperfolding was widely known in Europe.

From the evidence we have, it is likely that nearly all European paperfolding was derived from the waterbomb base or from the windmill base. There is no indication that at this time either the bird base of the frog bases were known, as they were in Japan.

Friedrich Froebel founded the kindergarten movement and he encouraged children to practise paperfolding of three kinds. The were (1) the "Folds of Truth", which consisted mathematical folding. (2) "Folds of Life" which were the traditional children'ss folds of animal birds and simple objects; and (3) "Folds of beauty" which were decorative patterns mainly folded from the Blintz Base. Yet there was still no knowledge of the bird base or the frog base. Froebelian folding was carried all over Europe and the world with the spread of the kindergarten movement. It was taken to North and South America and even to Japan. In Japan, Froebelian folding became merged with the native Japanese tradition of children's folding.

After the end of the Japanese isolation in 1854,, Japanese stage magicians began to come to Europe and North America, performing in theatres and at exhibitions. The dates are not precisely know. There are reports that one of their tricks was to pre-crease a flapping bird. They would then show the unfolded square to the audience so that the bright footlights concealed the previously made creases. Then with a few deft flicks they produced the Flapping Bird as if by magic.

This was the introduction of the Slapping Bird to the West. But where it came from is a mystery, because it is the crane ("tsuru"), which is known in Japan, not the flapping bird. One suggestion is that someone was trying to remember how to fold the crane but hit upon the flapping bird by mistake.

Knowledge of the Flapping Bird spread through Europe. The first publication we know so far is in the British "Boys' Own paper" in 1886. But the illustration is typically French and there may be earlier instances waiting to be discovered.

For the most part, while the Flapping Bird itself became popular there was generally no immediate movement to use the Bird base for folding in Europe. The idea of creating one's own models, for the most part, simply did not exist. It seems, however that in the villages Spain there existed a tradition of creative folding centred round the Pajarita. Unfortunately very little evidence for this movement survives either in practice or in any records. Miguel Unamuno, the Spanish poet and philosopher may have derived inspiration from it but we do not know. Then, in the later years of the 19th century, Unamuno hit upon the idea of creating his own models by folding some variants of the Pajarita. By the beginning of the 20th Century he was using the Bird Base fold some rather angular animals and birds.

It appears that Unamuno's folding linked with the existing Spanish tradition of folding and gave rise to group of followers in Spain itself. Then his folding was taken to Argentina in South America, where a group of folders, and in particular Dr. Solorzano Sagerdo, developed paper folding much further. Solorzano published several important books about folding around 1940. For the time being, however, paperfolding of Spain and Argentina was little known outside those countries. It is interesting that at the time there was a Japanese community in Argentine who had a paperfolding society of their own.

The late 19th Century saw the publication of paperfolding in books in both Europe and North America. Usually they were included in books of children's recreations. An early instance was Cassellss "Book of Indoor Amusements" published in London in 1881. There were many other similar books. Burt the models that they contained were still the old traditional childrenss folds, with an occasional different fold having only curiosity value.

Then in the 1920s books devoted to paper magic (literally, conjuring with paper) appeared and contained paperfolded figures. They included "Paper Magic" by Will Blythe in 1920 and Houdini's "Paper Magic" by the famous escapologist Harry Houdini in 1922.

Soon specialist books devoted to paperfolding alone began to appear. One of the best-known was "Fun with Paper Folding" by W.D.Murray and F.J. Rigney, punished in the United States in 1928. It is still in print with the title "Paper Folding for Beginners" In 1937, the South African Margaret Campbell published "Paper Toy making" in London. These two books became the standard manuals of paperfolding for many yeas. Margaret Campbell was one of the first to develop the idea of paperfolding bases through her "Foundation Folds"

In the 1930s there was another development. Conjurors, in particular, became interesting in folding bank notes to form rings, animals, birds and other objects. The conjurors continued to use paper folding in their stage and cabaret acts. Martin Gardener, who later became famous for his articles on mathematical recreations in the magazine "Scientific American" published two thick volumes containing chapters on paperfolding among the conjuring tricks.

Many of the later western paperfolders derived their interest from an earlier interest in conjuring. Others derived their interest from the books by Murray and Rigney and by Margaret Campbell. Even during the Second World War, occasional books on paperfolding were published in England and the united States. But the main development of paperfolding in both countries, as it did in Japan, came after 1945.

David Lister

Originally written: 7th September, 1998.

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