Origami – The Math of Fortune Telling

“Pick a colour!”
Schoop, schoop, schoop. (This is the best I can do at describing the sound made when a Paper Fortune Teller is manipulated.)
“Pick a number!”
Schoop, schoop, schoop, schoop, schoop, schoop.
“Pick another Number, and I’ll reveal your fortune!”
The flap with the number two is unfolded and the fortune is read: “You may be small but your ideas will be BIG!”

If I had received this fortune when I was a kid, would I have thought it was hokey? Or would I have thought ‘When I grow up I’m going to share all my BIG thoughts on a blog, which will be read by very few people, but I won’t care because…’  Of course, when I was a kid there was no internet and therefore no blogs, and I certainly didn’t think I was going to remain small, so I would have thought it was a dumb fortune.

But this was the fortune I got when I downloaded, and made a Paper Fortune Teller plan posted by the Children’s Author, Deborah L. Diesen. (She calls it a Cootie-Catcher, but that wasn’t a term used in my day.) Deborah warns that her fortune teller doesn’t really tell fortunes or predict the future, but I beg to differ with her!

When I was a kid, the Paper Fortune Teller would appear on the playground a few times each year (it was banned from the classroom, which was unfortunate.)  Once one person made one, everyone made one, and the craze would last for a week or two, then disappear. At the time, we didn’t know it was a very simple example of Origami and we certainly didn’t think about the geometric shapes we were creating when we folded a flat piece of paper into a three dimensional object.

Paper folding has likely been happening since paper was first invented! However, Origami as a Japanese art form began when paper first arrived in that country in the 6th Century. Paper was quite expensive at that time, so objects made from folded paper were reserved for special occasions. A butterfly, similar perhaps to the one I made, might have adorned the Sake bottles at a formal wedding ceremony.

Origami today is an entirely different duck as a result of the work of a number of  individuals who have described the mathematics of origami, extended the range of what can be folded, and applied origami to real world science situations. One of these ‘Folders’ is Robert Lang. You can see his remarkable Compositions on his website – Robert J. Lang Origami or you can listen to his story in the TED talk, Robert Lang Folds Way-New Origami.

Even the simplest Origami is not that easy as you will see when you try to open up the Paper Fortune Teller for the first time. As for the Butterfly I made – well, I won’t give you the link to the instructions because they were abysmal.

Happy Folding! May your mountains and valleys be crisp and precise!

35 thoughts on “Origami – The Math of Fortune Telling

    • Welcome Cee – I wonder if children today make Paper Fortune Tellers. I showed two of my school age grandchildren how to make them, but I don’t know if they are very popular in today’s culture.


  1. Hi,
    I can remember those paper fortunes, it was the same here when I was at school, it would last for awhile then disappear. The one you have in your photo is way more sophisticated than I have seen before, very nice. 🙂

    I admire the people that do Origami they certainly have a lot of talent, they make it look so easy, but it is definitely an art.


  2. Not exactly an origami story, but I once was having a day of leisure in a small Texas town and happened across a little shop that displayed hundreds of objects of art that were entirely made of cut paper. There were hundreds of one dimensional plaques with clever or inspirational sayings cut into the paper, and there were hundreds more that were three dimensional forests or tiny kitchens or little dioramas that depicted some cute scene or another (sample here: http://www.redlips4courage.com/dailycourage/?tag=paper-cutting ).

    I remember being astonished at how these could be created, one tiny paper cut at a time, with an exacto knife or razor blade. The patience, and precision. It was one of the times when I first realized how much I didn’t know about the wide spectrum of art that is out there for our enjoyment and appreciation. Origami is another example of a simple idea that blossoms into an intricately diverse piece of art. I love it when art surprises us, whether by the sheer simplicity of it, or by the beauty.


    • Hi ntexas – Thanks for the links! There is just no end to what can be done with a piece of paper. I have a book of patterns for making 3-D houses by cutting and folding paper. I’ll have to photograph a few of them and blog about them!


  3. I did not know that the origami is a Japanese art form and has long history. I have a Japanese kimono origami which I bought many years ago. It was amazingly detailed work.


  4. That has brought back memories of when a teenager and we used to make those and tell each others’ fortunes. Thanks for the links that I will enjoy loooking at.


  5. This brings back memories and some of them fairly new. I recently made a Paper Fortune Teller for my granddaughter. I really need to come up with better fortunes as they were entirely too serious for a 6 year old even though I thought they were somewhat silly.

    Your butterfly is beautiful. Obviously you overcame the abysmal instructions. 🙂


  6. As soon as I saw the picture *(before I even read the post), I said to myself…”I love those. I’m going to make one.”

    So you’re right. They’re as contagious as a yawn, but more exciting. Thanks for the fun idea to keep me occupied during the stupid Super Bowl.


  7. ‘Cootie Catcher’ is not the name we called it either and I won’t call it that now. 😮
    I remember the fortune tellers. We girls made different ones in my class and then could tell each others fortunes of many different venues. Our teachers confiscated a ton of them folded treasures from us over the years.
    Thanks for the sweet reminder of innocent fun times. 🙂


    • Hi E.C. – We called it a Fortune Teller too, and I would imagine the teachers confiscated a few at our school too. Today, a wise teacher would use the Fortune Teller to explain geometry!


  8. Margie, I had totally forgotten about those fun-filled fortune teller paper things we had as school kids. Brought back a ton of memories. Now you have me wondering how we created them. Thanks for the links too. I’ve got some fun reading to do.


  9. My favorite part of the post was when the Paper Fortune Teller pursed his lips and went: “Schoop, schoop, schoop!” That was very exciting… : )

    I remember them well, but never knew they had a name. Well, time to go wash my Cootie Catchers… : P


    • Hi Mark – It is very hard to write a word to describe a sound!
      My Hubby just returned from a business trip – I should have sent a few Cootie Catchers with him to hunt for possible bed bugs in the hotel.


  10. Funny how I’ve never really thought of those ‘cootie catchers’ as a form of origami..but – of course – they are. And – thanks for the links to the sites. What fun!


  11. We had those fortune tellers in school, but kids also called them fly catchers. I enjoy origami. Nice origami paper is still pricey. I made several origami cranes as a wedding decoration when I got married several years ago.


  12. I remember those…and it’s so true that they would pop up for awhile and then go away, only to pop up later. Since I’m always behind the times, I never got around to learning how to make one.


    • Hi Hippie – It used to be a skill that was passed from person to person – I never saw written instructions when I was a kid. Now, there are sites all over the internet!


    • I don’t remember coming across the word cootie until I saw it in a Calvin and Hobbes comic!
      There were so many playground games when we were kids – skipping, marbles, hopscotch, hula hoop, simon says, red rover, tag, jacks – wow, am I ever dating myself!


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