History of Origami: From Ancient Rituals to Modern Innovations

Origami has a long and storied history spanning numerous cultures and eras. In its early days, origami developed independently in East and West as both a ceremonial craft and recreational pastime before interconnecting in the modern era. While origami’s origins are ancient, its exponential growth primarily occurred over the past century.

Through pioneering innovators and global collaboration, origami experienced a creative explosion in techniques, complexity, and practical applications. Computational design, mathematical principles, and cross-disciplinary connections with fields like science and education unlocked origami’s immense potential. An art form once limited to simple folds became a vibrant international medium pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation.

This post will trace origami’s progression from its mysterious beginnings to the groundbreaking revolution of today, showing how a humble paper craft evolved into a globally significant art and tool primed for an awe-inspiring future.

History of Origami: Young Girls Making Paper Cranes
Young Girls Making Paper Cranes (1906) by Terazaki.

The Ancient Origins of Paper and Folding

Paper’s Invention in China

Paper was first invented in China, with archaeological evidence showing some of the earliest known examples dating back to between 140-87 BC. This early paper was rough and used for clothing rather than writing. By the 1st century AD, specimens were being used for writing and wrapping delicate items.

The origins of papermaking are traditionally attributed to Cai (or Ts’ai) Lun, a Chinese court official during the Han Dynasty around 100 AD. Cai Lun was charged with managing state records and recognized the need for a better writing medium than inefficient materials like bamboo and silk.

However, recent archaeological discoveries from the 2nd century BC suggest paper was already being used earlier by the Chinese military. This indicates Cai Lun’s role was likely improving and promoting the nascent technology of paper rather than inventing it himself.

Cai Lun is credited with refining the papermaking process using inexpensive materials like bark, hemp, rags, and fishing nets. This innovation made paper cheaper to produce compared to relying solely on rags.

Paper quickly spread across China, aided by the invention of woodblock printing during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century AD. By the 6th century, toilet paper was already in use. Paper was also central to the arts of poetry, painting, and calligraphy. The lightweight and flexible paper medium allowed books to be efficiently produced and transported, expanding Chinese written culture.

History of Origami: papermaking in China
Five woodcuts depicting the five seminal steps in ancient Chinese papermaking. From the 1637 Tiangong Kaiwu of the Ming dynasty. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Papermaking Reaches Japan

From China, the secrets of papermaking gradually spread to Vietnam by the 3rd century AD, Korea by the 4th century AD, and finally Japan by the 5th century AD – often carried by traveling Buddhist monks. Paper from Korea was prized for its glossy white color, perfect for painting and calligraphy.

Papermaking was traditionally thought to have been introduced to Japan from Korea around 610 AD by a Buddhist monk named Doncho (or Damjing). However, some scholars have questioned whether Doncho was definitively the first to bring paper to Japan.

The Nihon Shoki, written in 720 AD, simply states that Doncho produced paper, colors, and ink skillfully – not necessarily that he introduced those crafts. Archaeological evidence shows paper was already in use for government records in Japan by that time.

The passage on Doncho may have just been complimenting his adeptness with papermaking rather than crediting him as the source. Regardless, papermaking techniques from Korea took hold in Japan during the 6th-7th centuries AD, enabling key artistic and literary advances.

The Japanese refined methods to produce their prized traditional handmade washi paper. Washi became revered worldwide for its strength and quality. While the pioneers remain uncertain, this period was pivotal in establishing papermaking in Japan.

History of Origami
Washi making in current Japan. TR15336300101, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Evidence of Folding

Evidence of recreational paper folding in Japan before the 17th century is very limited. However, ceremonial and utilitarian folding practices existed earlier.

For instance, tato containers and letter folding may date back to the Heian period (794-1185 AD). Ocho and mecho butterflies were ceremonially used to decorate sake flasks in the 1300s-1400s Muromachi period. Their origins may have been as paper covers for flasks.

Tsutsumi gift-wrapping techniques also became important in the Muromachi period, establishing folding etiquette. During the Heian period, folded paper decorations and tools like gohei, onusa, and shide became part of Shinto religious rituals.

The Muromachi period saw geometrically folded noshi attached to gifts and abstract butterflies displayed on sake vessels as part of formal etiquette. These ceremonial origami styles were highly stylized, contrasting with later recreational folding that realistically represented objects.

Overall, direct evidence of recreational folding in Japan before the 17th century is scarce. But ceremonial and utilitarian folding existed, though its recreational origins remain a mystery.

Folding may have also developed in China along with paper itself, but firm proof is lacking. The early history of origami is masked by the limited surviving evidence.

History of Origami: shide in a shrine
Shide on Shimenawa at Nai-haiden, Fushimi Inari-taisha in Japan. Savannah Rivka, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Growth of Origami in Japan

Recreational Folding from the 17th Century

By the early 17th century, recreational paper folding was thriving in Japan alongside ceremonial origami. This marks the first definitive evidence of origami made purely for amusement and play rather than ritual purposes.

Simple recreational folds like boats, hats, cubes, and the iconic tsuru (crane) were widespread by the mid-1600s based on pictorial depictions in early sources. Books like Ramma Zushiki published in 1747 show the boom in recreational origami, with instructions for folds like boats, cranes, cubes, and early modular toys.

Ukiyo-e prints and kimono patterns from the 1600s-1700s commonly featured recreational origami motifs. Poems and texts also referenced recreational folding, like Ihara Saikaku‘s 1680 haiku: Rosei ga yume no cho wa orisue (the butterflies in Rosei’s dream would be origami).

The Kan no Mado manuscript compiled around 1845 contains a wide collection of whimsical recreational folds, suggesting origami’s popularity as a hobby by the early 1800s. The earliest known origami book, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata published in 1797, contained instructions for folding dozens of interconnected cranes from one sheet.

In the Edo period, recreational origami was commonly called “orikata” or “orisue” and wasn’t strictly differentiated from ceremonial folding. Both served as creative pastimes alongside arts like poetry and painting. Specific recreational folds also emerged like the Komoso and Yakko-san figures.

While its early origins are murky, recreational folding flourished in Japan during the 1600s-1700s based on the many depictions and texts. The Edo era marked origami’s transition from solely ritual to a widespread recreational practice.

History of Origami: Senbazuru Orikata
Pages from the Hiden Senbazuru Orikata. Public domain, via The Met Museum.

The Origins of Western Folding

Early Recreational Folding in Europe

In contrast to Japan, recreational paper folding developed more sporadically in medieval Europe. The earliest evidence appears in the 15th-16th centuries based on depictions of paperfolds in texts and artworks.

The 1614 English play “Duchess of Malfi”, by John Webster, seems to reference the traditional paper waterbomb, which indicates that recreational folding was familiar by the early 1600s. Paper folding likely derived from other European folding traditions like decorative napkin folding popular in the 15th century. Napkin and cloth folding laid the groundwork for recreational paper folding to later arise as paper spread.

Napkins shaped into birds, animals, ships, and other forms decorated banquet tables of nobles and royalty. Books like Li Tre Trattati published in 1639 in Italy contained diagrams for folding napkins into various origami-like shapes.

The 1639 book shared many patterns with George Philipp Harsdörffer’s Trincir-Buch published in Germany in 1665, showing the prevalence of decorative napkin folding. While not strictly paper folding, napkin folding helped spread folding techniques and creative shapes that cross-pollinated with recreational paper origami’s later development.

History of Origami: napking folding
Page from George Philipp Harsdörffer’s Trincir-Buch. Public domain, via SLUB Dresden

The Impact of the Kindergarten Movement

In the mid-19th century, the Kindergarten movement founded by Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852) in Germany helped popularize recreational paperfolding across Europe and eventually worldwide.

As an educator, Fröbel recognized paper folding, weaving, sewing, and cutting as beneficial developmental activities for young children. His revolutionary Kindergarten system incorporated paper folds as educational tools, spreading recreational folding globally as Kindergartens proliferated.

While the Kindergarten style focused on geometric “Folds of Beauty”, it made paper folding accessible to the masses. As Kindergartens opened worldwide in the late 1800s, they brought colored paper and recreational origami along with Fröbel’s educational principles.

This laid crucial groundwork for the widespread adoption of folding, though some argued Fröbelian folding became creatively restrictive.

History of Origami: Froebelian folds of beauty
Plates with Fröbrelian folds, from “Der Kindergarten” by Hermann Goldammer, 1869.

Origami in the Modern Era

Early Cross-Cultural Transmissions

While recreational origami developed independently in Japan and the West through the 19th century, some cross-cultural transmission also occurred.

For instance, traditional Japanese folds like the crane and flapping bird migrated to Europe and America starting in the 1870s, likely brought by visiting Japanese performers and educators at World Expos.

At the same time, Japanese schools adopted aspects of Fröbel’s Kindergarten paper folding in the 1880s, blending some Western geometric methods with native origami. So by the late 19th century, origami was no longer evolving in complete isolation between East and West.

Some creative techniques began circulating globally through performances, teaching practices, and trade.

History of Origami: Pajarita
Monument to a “Pajarita”, traditional Spanish fold. Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0 ES, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mid-20th Century Origami Renaissance

The modern origami renaissance blossomed in the mid-20th century, catalyzed by pioneering folders in Japan and the United States.

In Japan, Akira Yoshizawa developed a radically creative new approach to origami in the 1930s-50s. He introduced innovations like wet-shaping techniques to create lifelike figures. Yoshizawa also originated the iconic dotted-line system used today for origami diagrams, working with Samuel Randlett to standardize symbols.

Through thousands of expressive designs, Yoshizawa elevated origami into an artistic medium.

Yoshizawa’s groundbreaking works reached global fame thanks to Gershon Legman, an American origami enthusiast. Starting in the 1950s, Legman organized some of the first major exhibitions of Yoshizawa’s origami outside Japan.

He connected Yoshizawa with folders worldwide through his research and writings. This pivotal promotion helped introduce Yoshizawa’s creative style internationally.

In the United States, Lillian Oppenheimer founded the pioneering Origami Center in New York City in 1958. This organization hosted exhibitions, published instructional books/magazines, and spread awareness of origami as a creative art for all ages.

Oppenheimer gave opportunities to innovators like Neal Elias and Michael Shall. Her work made origami a recognized artistic medium.

Together, Yoshizawa’s radical creative approach as the “father of modern origami,” Legman’s promotion, and Oppenheimer’s organizational efforts catalyzed the worldwide modern origami movement.

Their synergistic global partnership marked a pivotal new era for origami as an international art form starting in the 1950s-60s.

History of Origami: Folding Paper Puppets
Folding Paper Puppets by Shari Lewis and Lillian Oppenheimer (1962) on Amazon.com.

Growth of Origami Societies and Publications

The modern origami movement led to an explosion of origami societies, books, and magazines worldwide from the 1950s-60s onward.

National origami organizations like the British Origami Society, Centre de Diffusion de l’Origami in France, and Origami Center of America formed starting in the 1960s. These pioneering member groups provided platforms for artists to collaborate and gave rise to conventions.

Many influential creators began publishing their original models and instructional manuals, spreading innovative techniques globally. For instance, Akira Yoshizawa produced numerous seminal books in Japan showcasing his works. Yoshizawa’s diagram system also became widely adopted.

Origami periodicals like the British Origami Society’s The Paper started alongside similar magazines from origami societies around the world. Books for beginners like Paper Magic by Robert Harbin also appeared in the 1950s-60s.

This explosion of organized societies, conventions, dedicated books/magazines, and activity books helped drive origami’s soaring popularity as a global creative art during its modern renaissance starting in the mid-late 20th century.

History of Origami: Akira Yoshizawa
Akira Yoshizawa featured on the cover of the Origami Tanteidan Magazine (2005).

Increasing East-West Connections

The modern origami movement fostered increasing artistic connections between folders in Japan and the West from the 1950s onward.

As Yoshizawa rose to fame, his creative techniques significantly influenced Western innovators like Fred Rohm and Neal Elias who pioneered 3D modulars. The adoption of Yoshizawa’s diagram style also helped blend Japanese and Western folding.

The rise of international conventions like those of the Japan Origami Academic Society and OrigamiUSA promoted more direct collaborations between Eastern and Western creators. Exhibitions of Yoshizawa’s works introduced Japanese masters to global acclaim.

By the 1960s-70s, origami was recognized as an international art rather than just a Japanese or Western craft. Pioneers helped bridge geographical divides, leading to a blending of origami techniques, aesthetics, and philosophies worldwide.

Revolutionary Innovations in Folding

Wet-Folding Sculpture

The modern origami movement opened the doors to a wave of innovations and techniques starting in the mid-20th century. One seminal development was the invention of wet-folding by Akira Yoshizawa in the 1950s-60s.

Wet-folding involves lightly dampening the paper to soften it before folding intricate figures. This allows for more molding, shaping, and sculpting compared to traditional dry folding.

Wet-folding enabled creators to achieve incredibly smooth, lifelike organic designs. Yoshizawa used wet-folding to create figures that captured a sense of vitality using minimal folds.

Other artists like Eric Joisel later elevated wet-folding into a sculptural art form, creating fluid paper structures. Yoshizawa’s pioneering of wet-folding marked a major turning point in what was possible in origami using just paper and water.

It blew open doors for greater 3D realism, movement, and sculpture that influenced generations of folders worldwide.

History of Origami: Yoshizawa's bull
Akira Yoshizawa’s bull, wet-folding. Emre Ayaroğlu, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mathematical Theories and Computer Design

Starting in the 1970s-80s, some origami creators began deeply exploring the underlying geometric and mathematical foundations of paper folding.

Pioneers like Japanese mathematician Humiaki Huzita formulated fundamental theories analyzing origami crease patterns and geometries. Others like Robert Lang developed algorithms enabling origami forms to be systematically designed.

Software like Lang’s “TreeMaker” allowed complex origami structures to be modeled digitally. This mathematical side of origami unlocked entirely new approaches for designing elaborate models.

It led to interdisciplinary connections between origami and fields like physics, engineering, and computer science. Concepts like Huzita-Justin’s “Origami Axioms” illuminated the field.

Origami’s mathematical theories and computational design tools enabled radical new creative possibilities as well as scientific applications starting in the late 20th century. Mathematics propelled origami’s complexity to new heights.

Conferences brought together researchers worldwide exploring origami experimentally in math, science, psychology, design, and rehabilitation. Particularly, the Origami in Science, Mathematics, and Education (OSME) conference series began in 1989, and their published proceedings have documented leading origami innovations through the decades.

History of Origami: OSME 7 Vol 1
Book cover of the Proceedings of OSME 7, Vol. 1, 2018.

Therapeutic and Educational Uses

In addition to technical innovations, the modern era also saw expanded practical applications of origami. For instance, researchers began rigorously studying how origami could enrich education and conceptual learning, building on Fröbel’s pioneering work.

Origami therapy programs also emerged, using paper folding to help improve fine motor skills, focus, eye-hand coordination, and relaxation in people with physical or mental challenges.

By the late 20th century, origami’s therapeutic benefits and educational value became widely recognized. Its practical applications expanded significantly during the modern period thanks to dedicated research.

History of Origami: teaching origami to children
Teacher helping the students with their origami in Timor-Leste. Astronomy & Society Group, CC BY 2.0 DEED, via Flickr

The Exponential Future

Even with the rapid innovations of the 20th century, the possibilities of origami continue to expand dramatically in the 21st century. For instance, creators are deeply exploring curved folding, and wet-shaping paper into organic free-form curves and textures rather than flat facets.

Designers are also studying the mathematics and geometry of curved origami crease patterns. Techniques like folding curved panels or joining small paper sheets open new creative doors.

Advanced computer programs allow increasingly intricate origami to be theoretically modeled and shared globally. As pioneers actively push the boundaries, origami’s future horizons appear rich and unbounded.