The first clear record of origami comes from a 1680 poem by Japanese poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku. “Rosei-ga yume-no cho-wa orisue,” he wrote, meaning “the butterflies in Rosei's dream would be origami.” The butterflies he referenced were often used as a method of wrapping sake bottles at weddings.
But origami certainly predates the 17th century, and although today it is most associated with Japan, it’s sometimes said to have originated in China. That’s where paper itself was invented by the Chinese court official Cai Lun in 105 C.E., although there’s some evidence for much older forms of paper (historians sometimes debate what counts as cloth and what counts as paper). Cai showed how to create sheets of paper out of tree bark, old rags, and other material, producing a product that was much more efficient for writing compared to the silk, wood, or bamboo that had come before. By the 6th century, Buddhist monks had brought paper to Japan, and paper-folding is thought to have begun in Japan not long afterward.
However, origami history suffers from the fact that paper degrades relatively quickly, meaning that any ancient models are long gone. In fact, there’s no clear documentation of origami until the 1600s. By that point, paper was mass-produced and more affordable. For several centuries, origami was passed down in an oral tradition, often from mother to daughter. Some sources say that during the Edo period (1603-1868), samurai warriors used origami to wrap gifts, using different styles depending on the present. The first written instructions for origami only arrived in 1797, with Akisato Rito’s Sembazuru Orikata, which showed how to create a series of cranes from a square of paper (orikata meaning "folded shapes). In the 1880s, the practice earned its modern name, origami, from oru “to fold” and kami “paper.”
Meanwhile, Europe had developed its own arts and crafts based on folding paper and other materials. Around the 12th century, the Moors brought to Spain a practice of mathematically based paper folding, which later became a more representational art known as papiroflexia or pajarita (which is still popular in Spain and Argentina). During the Renaissance, Italian courts developed a tradition of creating elaborate table centerpieces by folding starched napkins into ships, birds, or other animals. Around the 16th century in Central Europe, patenbriefs — a type of memorializing card presented to children and godparents after baptisms — were pressed into what’s now called a “double blintz,” with the corners of a square folded into the center. Some historians think these may have taken the place of earlier, folded horoscopes created for children, although no folded example has yet come to light.
One man who had a folded patenbrief was the German educational theorist Friedrich Froebel, born in 1782. Froebel — who opened the very first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837 — was a big believer in paper-folding for educational use. His educational system included series of “Gifts” (toys) and “Occupations,” one of which was paper-folding. He also developed several unique folds meant to introduce children to the concepts of geometry. When Japan opened up to the West in the mid-19th century and imported much of the European educational system, these “Froebelian folds” began to be taught in Japanese kindergartens.
Origami was still considered a children’s pastime in Japan when an artist named Akira Yoshizawa came on the scene. A former draftsman in a factory who had used origami to teach junior employees geometry, Yoshizawa devoted himself to the craft in the mid-1930s, initially selling preserved fish on the side to earn money. In 1951, the Japanese magazine "Asahi Graph" commissioned him to illustrate the Japanese zodiac using paper. His origami designs were a huge hit, and the models were exhibited afterward in Japan, Amsterdam, and New York City. Yoshizawa also developed new and innovative techniques such as “wet folding,” using dampened paper to make his animals more expressive and three-dimensional. Alongside American Samuel Randlett, he developed a visual notation system using dotted lines and arrows to offer origami instructions that can be read in any language. Known as the Yoshizawa-Randlett system, it’s still widely used.
The easy-to-understand instructions helped spread origami far and wide. In the United States, a New Yorker named Lillian Oppenheimer also helped popularize both the word and the idea of origami. In 1958 she founded the Origami Center of America and went on to be featured in several decades worth of newspaper, radio, and TV appearances. She also appeared in several books, including three she co-wrote with the puppeteer Shari Lewis.
Today origami is considered a nearly global art form. Some practitioners use advanced mathematical theories with complex creases to create their work, while others focus on more abstract artistic representations of the natural world. In general, a single square sheet of paper is used, without cuts, although other practitioners — often called “folders” — may use rectangles or other shapes and multiple pieces of paper.
Though origami can be almost as unique as the people who make it, the art form has some broad styles. These include minimal (creations that focus on the essence of the subject and use few folds); realistic (more complex creations that strive to represent the main features of a subject); modular (multiple geometric units using many folded sheets of paper that tuck into one another); practical (creations with real-world applications, like boxes); and Pureland (simple folds in a system developed by Englishman John Smith), among others. The Pureland system was developed for children and people with injuries or disabilities, and indeed origami is used as a form of art therapy in psychiatric hospitals and other settings.
Dozens of origami societies now exist around the world, such as the Japan Origami Academic Society, which helps spread original designs and publishes "Origami Detectives" magazine. The organization Oppenheimer founded in her Gramercy Park townhouse is still going strong as OrigamiUSA, which has its headquarters in New York City's American Museum of Natural History. It’s an impressive trajectory for an art form that may have ancient origins but was considered mere child’s play for centuries.