“When did people start folding paper like this? What were they trying to make?”
Despite the sincerity of my daughter’s interest, the fact that she couldn’t be bothered to look up from folding her tenth paper crane of the day made it an odd question. As cute as they are, we don’t really need fifty paper birds around the house, suggesting that there’s something intrinsically satisfying about making origami and other paper-folding sculptures. That said, my daughter did raise an interesting point— it’s unlikely that anyone spontaneously folded an entire crane without some kind of precedent to put that idea in their head first. So how did we get from that first creased paper to the sculptures we have today?
Folding precious paper
Unfortunately, as the kami in origami implies, this is an art form based around paper. As tricky as it is to carefully fold a paper sculpture, preserving the resulting artwork is also difficult, and so we no longer have the world’s first attempts at paper-folding to examine for clues. Much of what we know has been inferred indirectly from circumstance, written descriptions or even folded paper depicted in other artwork. At the very least, we can say that origami didn’t exist before paper did, which gets us to 105 AD, when Cai Lun invented paper in China. The new material then traveled to Korea, eventually landing in Japan with Buddhist monks in the sixth century.
When paper first arrived in Japan, it was a rare and exclusive technology. Far from the disposable receipts and tissues we are now surrounded by, paper was expensive and special enough to only be used in religious and formal ceremonies, like purification rituals and weddings. In these cases, it was often folded into abstract shapes, generally copying the geometry of fabric ornaments that were also used in these ceremonies, like a simple zig-zag Shide. Gifts might also be adorned with folded paper, again as an ornament and symbol of value and authenticity.
The first representational origami sculptures were probably butterflies attached to sake bottles at Shinto weddings. Mecho and Ocho were meant to be female and male butterflies respectively, opening the door for the multitude of animal-shaped sculptures that would follow in later centuries. However, most of those designs would have to wait until at least the 1600s, largely due to the availability of paper as a material.
Accessible art form
Once paper was more accessible to the general public, origami became a very popular across Japan. By the 1700s, folded cranes were depicted in other artwork. While most sculptures had previously been taught via oral tradition, the first instruction manual, the “Tsutsumi-no Ki” by Sadatake Ise, was printed in 1764. While other manuals were published in the following years, the next major innovation came in 1950, when Akira Yoshizawa and Sam Randlett developed a set of standardized arrows and other symbols to make instructions clearer for people around the world. These symbols are now commonly found in diagrams and instruction manuals, allowing origami designs to be shared and iterated upon much more easily than before.
With people around the world sharing designs, there has been a lot of innovation in the designs themselves. Early Japanese origami didn’t necessarily avoid making cuts in the paper as it was folded, but many enthusiasts today try to challenge themselves by making geometrically-complex shapes with folds alone. Other branches of origami include wet origami, modular designs and even designs that are inspiring engineers with new ways to build flexible robots in other materials.
Other forms of folding paper
While we don’t have detailed records to prove it, it’s safe to say that people started folding paper outside of Japan as well. Zhezhi is a form of paper-folding from China that generally focused on making geometric objects like boats and hats. In 1993, Chinese refugees introduced people to what is often called Golden Venture folding, wherein many smaller paper triangles are assembled into larger, three-dimensional objects.
Europeans couldn’t resist folding paper either, although its hard to say how they got started. By 1490, images can be found that seem to depict a life-sized version of a paper-folded boat, although it’s hard to be sure based on the single woodcut alone. By the 17th century, German baptism certificates were commonly folded into spiraling forms, although this isn’t to say that folded paper was limited to ritual like it was in Japan. The play “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster mentions children folding paper as early as 1614.
The most famous form of European paper-folding is likely the Pajarita. The bird sculpture isn’t just a popular design, but is the name of a style of paper-folding originating out of Spain. Possibly based on mathematically-folded designs created by the Moors, the Spanish papiroflexia spread across Europe, eventually turning up as a cultural reference point in other media.
Source: History of Origami, Origami Resource Center