You are here

How a Passion for Paper Began

by Gay Merrill Gross, Mary Jane Manger, and Mark Kennedy

Have you ever wondered why the celebration of World Origami Days begins on October 24? It is the birthday of Lillian Oppenheimer, born in 1898, who is credited with popularizing paperfolding in the United States.

Today, we have Community Origami Groups (COGs) across the U.S. and around the world, with some of them listed here, spawned in large part by Lillian Oppenheimer’s passion for folding paper. Lillian first was introduced to paperfolding in 1929, when she sought activities to occupy her daughter, who was recuperating from an illness.

You can learn more about the history of origami in the U.S. from Lillian Oppenheimer herself through the videos kindly made available by Daniel Scher at the OrigamiUSA website.

Lillian Oppenheimer [Top Left] undated; [Top Right] 1987; [Bottom] 1991

In this article, three individuals share their personal memories of Lillian Oppenheimer.

Gay Merrill Gross:

I think that Lillian started having monthly meetings toward the end of 1958. Meyer Berger had written about her in June of 1958 for his New York Times article, and when she started her meetings later that year, she contacted him and posted a small announcement about the meetings. She subsequently started having both daytime and evening meetings, the latter for working people.

I started attending the monthly evening meetings in the summer of 1979, and when I asked about learning a particular model that sat on top of Lillian's piano, Natalie Epstein told me to come to the Wednesday daytime meeting, which at that time met at the New School. Eventually the New School was no longer amenable to having the group meet there, so Lillian had the group meet at her loft at 31 Union Square West, where they continued to meet until Lillian's passing in 1992.

Origami Sunday meetings (the fourth Sunday of every month), now managed by Mark Kennedy, are a continuation of the monthly meetings Lillian started back in 1958. There we have no space limitations, and I find that when I mention the meetings to people at Special Sessions, many are not aware of the meetings.

In addition to hosting meetings, Lillian also began selling the few books then available along with paper. The paper she had for sale was in a small closet near her kitchen, and the books she had for sale were on several bookshelves out in the open.

In her bedroom she had a wall of red (her favorite color) boxes, filled with dimensional models. Flat models were stored in drawers, each in a plastic sleeve. Alice Gray helped her set up a system to catalog the model samples and step folds for the hundreds of models that people sent her from all over the world.

To help file the origami models, Lillian was assisted by Natalie Epstein. Natalie and Beatrice Goldberg, Lillian’s best friend, attended both the Wednesday daytime meetings and the evening Origami Monday meetings—the first Monday of every month— whether Lillian was home or not! If she was traveling, someone else hosted the meeting at her home. (Cy Levine hosted the second meeting I attended in 1979, and Michael Shall more frequently hosted in her absence.)

Lillian never locked her door. Her collection of money folds was stolen at least once!

Lillian loved people and having company. Anna Lee Culp, one of her first students, says that origami was Lillian's 'mousetrap.' She used it to bring people to her.

For me personally, I have met most of my good friends because of Lillian. Even if I meet a new origami friend today who never knew Lillian, I know that meeting them came about because of the tradition of sharing and teaching each other origami—and that is Lillian's legacy. It is also the model for so many other origami groups, both in this country and abroad.

Mary Jane Manger:

I saw a news article that Lillian Oppenheimer was giving Origami Lessons. I called and booked a lesson as a gift for my daughter, Kimberly Manger's 10th birthday. Lillian started to teach Kim and then stopped and looked at me, just sitting there watching. She said, "Well! As long as you're sitting there, you might as well fold!" That was my beginning. It was November 1980. I loved it, but held off a year to give Kim a head start. She actually got her invention, Kim's Star Flower accepted by Japan Airlines for their window within a year or two! I started going to Lillian's Wednesday meeting after that. Lillian had a kitchen helper and served sliced deli meats and bread for lunch.

When I started attending the Wednesday meetings, they no longer were in the New School but in Lillian's Union Square loft – a large space that could accommodate more people. In addition to origami, she had storytellers and puppet shows. She had nighttime and daytime origami groups. She also sold origami paper and books. She, Michael Shall and Alice Gray formed The Friends of The Origami Center of America, which was fortunate to have a Home-Office at the American Museum of Natural History. We did continue to meet at Lillian's apartment until she became ill and passed away. At that time, the Wednesday Group decided to continue. From then on, we usually met once or twice a month in member's private apartments. The size of the group was limited by the number of chairs and table space in the apartment and also if the member was known or referred by a member. We usually started in the morning, broke for a potluck lunch, and continued until mid-afternoon, or later. There now are many public meeting places in and around the city – the public libraries, coffee shops, and, of course, the American Museum of Natural History.

Mark Kennedy:

I attended Lillian's Wednesday daytime group a few times in the mid- to late 80's. On my first visit one of the members brought her daughter; the daughter had turned 65 and had just retired. Lillian's loft had a very long dining room table that could fit 20+ people when all of the leaves were in place. There were usually about 10-12 people in attendance. Except for myself, Verdi Adams (Lillian's companion) and Jean Paul Latil (accompanied by his wife), all of the attendees were women. I thought of the group as Lillian's old ladies folding group.

Lillian’s evening origami meetings were held on the first Monday of each month. They started at 8 pm and ended at about 10 pm, Lillian would stop for juice and cookies, cake, snacks... Everyone left by 10:30. Verdi Adams would set up folding school desk chairs – there were even a few for left-handed folders. Sometimes the set up would be chairs and lap boards. Sometimes the teacher would be on the Puppet Stage if there had been a performance earlier in the week or scheduled for the next week.

When you walked into her building on 16th St. and Union Square West, you announced yourself to the doorman. When he heard Lillian's name, he said, "Go up the stairs one flight to the first door on the left. Go right in; the door is unlocked." It always was.

During snack time, Lillian would open up her sliding closet—one side was the pantry, while the other side was mostly paper and sometimes a few books. She called this paper closet ‘Origami Heaven.’

She kept books for sale on shelves on the walls between the windows. She would always announce any new books that she had gotten since the last meeting.

Lillian transferred the selling of books and papers to The Friends of The Origami Center of America, creating The SOURCE. Later she gave up her monthly meetings. This was the beginning of Origami Sundays. Originally the meetings were held once a month on Wednesday nights, since that was the "free" night at the American Museum of Natural History. Budget cuts ended the free nights. The Museum wanted to charge The Friends $200 a night for overtime guards. The Board did not feel that it was appropriate to spend the organization's money on a purely local meeting, hence the meetings were held on Sunday afternoon when the museum was open. Attendees were to supply their own paper in order not to spend members’ money for a local event. The same rules still apply today.


Editor's note: Please share events you host or attend during World Origami Days 2016, October 24-November 11: calendar [at]