The Origin Of Paper Money Folding
The question I am asked is when and why people started folding dollar bills. But I think that it really means folding paper money in general. Every country has paper money and banknotes are folded in every country where they exist. There are differences in the size and in the proportion of length to breadth and this does influence the resulting models. In particular, however the unusually narrow length of United States dollar bills in the ratio 3 X 7 is somewhat unusual and this does have a particular influence the way dollar bills are folded. Just why dollar bills are called bills and not notes is a historical idiosyncrasy. Some of the earliest American currency in Colonial days was given the name of "bills", as for instance, the Bills of Credit of the Colony of Massachusetts issued around 1690.
Paper money was used in China as early as the 13th Century. By the 17th Century privately issued Goldsmiths' notes were issued in England. These were a kind of IOU for gold and silver entrusted to the goldsmiths for safekeeping. The Stockholm Bank in Sweden issued the first European Bank notes in the strict sense of the words in 1661. During the 19th century, banknotes became widespread throughout the world, so there were ample resources for folding them. In Britain only banknotes of higher values of five pounds and above were issued, but in the United States many small-value notes or bills were issued both by the separate states and by private banks. Some had the proportions of 3 X 7 which have become so familiar. However federal bills of the present comparatively small size and shape were not issued until 1929. It is just possible that it was the widespread availability of these now familiar modern bills that encouraged the craze for money folding in the Untied States.
In the light of the long history of paper money, it is impossible to say when money folding first stated. As with every other aspect of the history of paperfolding, we are handicapped by the dearth of any information at all.
The first example of what may possibly be called money folding is at the beginning of the 19th Century. The English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly, who was born in 1792, had an obsession for making paper boats and floating them cross ponds and rivers. Ways of folding simple paper-folded boats by what we know as origami techniques were known, even in those days but apparently Shelley just scrunched up the paper into some sort of hollow and we cannot be sure that he used folding techniques. He would fold any paper of any kind at all from his pockets and on one occasion he is said to have used a fifty pound note. Fifty pound notes were then large in size and beautifully engraved in black copper plate on superb white paper. And fifty pounds was a vast sum it those days. He is reported to have watched his paper boat with considerable anxiety until it ws blown safely to the other side of the pond. Was this the first recorded example of money folding?
Many years were to elapse before there were any mor indications of money folding. In the West, the main guardians of the paperfolding traditions were the conjurors and showmen and money folding seems to hve developed among them. However, we have no evidence until the 1930s. The conjurors began to write books about paperfolding in the 1920s, including Will Blythe in England with his "Paper Magic" in 1920 and Houdini in the United States with his own book, also called "Paper Magic" in 1922. (In those days, the words "paper magic" meant literally "magic using paper" and the words had not come to have the meaning of "origami" which they have had under the influence of Robert Harbin's later book of that name.) But while Blythe's and Houdini's books both contain simple paperfolding, neither uses money for the purpose. We can be fairly sure that if money folding was at all prevalent at that time then one or other would have mentioned it. Another English conjuror, Will Goldston, published a book called "Paper Tricks" in 1919, but it did not include the section on paperfolding which had been promised. However, In his book, "Paper Magic" (1956) the later conjuror, Robert Harbin includes a fold which he attributes to Will Goldston. Harbin calls it a "double note" and it is a way of folding a banknote in such a way that it has the appearance of being two notes - very useful if you want to practise fraud on someone. Whether this is truly an instance of money folding in the modern sense is a matter of opinion.
The first clear account of the use of money for folding is given by Martin Gardner, the author of the famous column on mathematical recreations in the magazine "Scientific American". The brief account comes some twenty years after the event in the preface which Martin Gardner, himself a keen amateur magician, wrote for Sam Randlett's second book "The Best of Origami". which was published in 1963. Gardner wrote: "I remember attending a magic convention in Chicago in the thirties at which almost every magician present was wearing finger ring with a large rectangular "jewel" that he had folded from a "dollar bill". There is no further mention of money folding or of the ring so that we can only guess that it was one of the several rings folded from dollar bills that became popular in later years.
Martin Gardner wrote a booklet called "After the Dessert" in 1941, which is a collection of simple stunts and tricks. It contains a magical trick in which a bill is mysteriously made to turn upside down, but it cannot be said to be a money fold. The booklet also contains instructions for the flapping bird, but without any suggestion that it should be folded out of money. There is also a folded brassiere , but it is folded from a napkin, not from money. In later manifestations it was folded from paper and worn on the head with the modified name of "cat's ears".
Apart from magicians, the people among whom money folding has been most prevalent have been servicemen and bar tenders. The Second World War probably encouraged money folding as troops whiled away the tedium of the long and anxious periods of waiting between battles. In 1958, Victor Frenkill, who used to fold letters and even whole words from money told Lillian Oppenheimer that he picked up the money fold of the bow tie with George Washing ton's portrait in the knot from a former GI.
As with most aspects of the history of paperfolding serious research begins with Gershon Legman's "Bibliography of Paper Folding" privately printed in 1952. Legman carried out exhaustive researches in every field relating to paperfolding, including all the magazines devoted to conjuring. But despite all his research he mentions only four references relating to money folds.
Legman's first item was a single-sheet announcement for Jinx Magic magazine dating from about 1942. I explains how to fold the bow tie with Washington's face in the knot, which I have already mentioned. Legman attributes this fold to Mitchell Dyszel and he mentions that in Hugard's Magic Monthly for February 1949 there is a note from someone asking for this item. This is an indication that at this date money folding was only just beginning to be known among magicians.
Legman's most impressive reference to money folding is a mimeographed leaflet called "Bill Folds" which originated with a magician called Al O'Hagan and which was issued by George Snyder's Magic Shop of Cleveland, Ohio in 1945. (Incidentally, George Snyder became the father-in-law of the great creative folder, Neal Elias.) Among one or two items which were not really money folding, O'Hagan gives the bow tie with Washington's head in the knot, a ring with the figure "One" in the signet and a flapping bird from a dollar bill reduced to a square. Frankly, this repertoire is not very impressive and serves only to confirm that money folding was not very greatly developed at that time.
Legman's next item relating to Money Folding is a two-page article by Martin Gardner in Hugard's Magic Monthly for February 1949. This gives instructions for folding a snapping fish, which uses the eye above the pyramid on the bill for the eye of the fish. Another article listed by Legman is also called "Dollar Bill folds", but is by Orille Meyer. It gives instructions for folding a pair of panties our of a dollar bill. Obviously it was intended for use in bars and places with wholly male audiences, because in Meyer's version Washingtons' eye appears in the crotch. In later versions, like the brassiere, this fold was bowdlerised!
In his Bibliography, under the heading "Dollar Bill folds", Legman directed the reader's attention to the entry under his own name. Here are listed two of his folds "Lotus and Bow Tie" (The Lover's Knot) in the magic magazine Phoenix for 21st March 1952 and his "Lingam and Yoni" (a version of the bar and bolt)., which was stated in his bibliography to be in preparation and which later appeared in "Phoenix" for 23rd, January 1953. However, neither of these folds is instructed to be folded from a dollar bill, although there is not doubt that with very slight modification both could become money folds.
So we arrive at the beginning of the 1950s, apparently with only a handful of money folds. Then in 1956 a book was published with a quite extensive section on money folding. This was no other than "Paper Magic" by Robert Harbin. I hope I may be forgiven for continuing to heap praises on this remarkable and epoque-making book. On page 23, In the Preface under the heading "Paper Money folds on page, Harbin writes: "The folding of notes into shapes is quite a pastime in America. In that county they are known as dollar bill folds and there are many varieties . Some money folds require that the note be slightly slit here and there...these have been left our for obvious reasons."
Pages 92 to 95 are devoted to a whole collection of money folds, all folded here from pound notes. They include the bow tie, Orville Meyer's notorious panties (here bereft of the eye and called "a pair of shorts"), Will Goldston's Double Note, two finger rings devised by Robert Harbin and his illustrator, Rolf Harris and a splendid peacock which had been shown to Harbin by Gershon Legman's friend Cy Enfield, the film producer, and which is said to be of Spanish origin. Harbin and Harris, following the precept of Akira Yoshizawa are already leading the way with creative folding.
With the publication of "Paper Magic", money folding may be said to have been annexed into the newly emerging modern paperfolding movement. And when Lillian Oppenheimer founded the Origami Center in 1958, money folding was fully accepted as a branch of what was newly named "origami". The Origamian reportred that on 3rd November, 1958 "we learned some dollar bill folds". Unfortunately details of the bill fgolds are not given. While magicians and bar tenders may hitherto have made money folds their own province, now creative paperfolders began to devise new models and the number of folds multiplied rapidly. In 1959, Victor Frenkill, who had independently devised his own way of folding letters and numbers from dollar bills, visited Lillian Oppenhiemer and for her he folded for her initials "L O" folded from a single bill. She rewarded him by making him an honorary member of the Origami Center.
Later, in The Origamian for Spring and Summer1963 Peter van Note, who was then the executive editor under Lillian Oppenheimer, mentioned the contribution of bar-tenders to the spread of dollar bill folding for the amusement of their customers. Elsewhere it is said that a customer would lay down a bill on the bar top and ask the barman to fold it fir his admiring girlfriend. No doubt it whiled way the monotony of an otherwise quiet bar and the barman folded as much for his own amusement as for his customers.
Money folding may be said to have reached maturity when Fred Rohm turned to folding money. Among his magnificent money folds published in "The Origamian" in the 1960s were his incomparable Stag and his Star of David.
In 1963 the Hagerstown Trust Company (a bank) sponsored the publication of "The Folding Money Book". The author was not a bar tender or a GI, but he was a brilliant professional magician and paperfolder, Adolfo Cerceda.
Since then many books have been published devoted to money folding and it has become an important branch of Origami.
We still do not know why people started to fold money except, perhaps, that it is of the nature of mankind to twist and turn any piece of paper held in the hand. But why do people still fold money? I can do no more than put forward a few suggestions:
1. Paper money is always (well, sometimes) readily available especially at parties and in bars and even at origami conventions.
10. If a banknote is folded and given away, it presents the recipient with the exquisite dilemma of saving the fold and effectively losing the value of the money or of unfolding the model and losing the model itself.
Folding money has its own kind of pleasure and many folders circumvent their own shortage of this exotic folding material by folding stag or toy money. But is this quite the same thing?
David ListerBack to the index