When loyal hearts are crossed by none, true love will join them both in one;
For I do think where hearts agree, there can no strife nor malice be.
The lines above were among many others found written along the edges of an ornately decorated Valentine Puzzle Purse created on February 14, 1826 (image at right). The sender, who so earnestly sought a woman’s attention and affection, clearly spent a great deal of time and creative effort in crafting this love token, which was folded in such a way as to create its own envelope. As each fold was undone, more of the Valentine message was revealed. Reaching the center of the Puzzle Purse delivered the final heartfelt message (but it was then often a challenge to re-fold it correctly!).
The Puzzle Purse itself had an intriguing history long before the aforementioned gentleman put pen to paper. Tato -- or flat paper boxes or envelopes -- can be dated to Japan’s Heian era (782-1185 CE) and were made using the paper folding technique of tatogami, the precursor of origami. Tato were used by everyone from housewives to businessmen as portable storage for small items such as buttons, pins and needles, clips, or stamps.
By the early 1700s in England and Colonial America, the Puzzle Purse began to be used as a means of exchanging romantic messages, with its intricate folds and meaningful symbology of detailed depictions of flowers, birds, vines, and hearts reflective of the beguiling nature of love and courtship. In the mid-17th through mid-18th centuries in Pennsylvania, German immigrants also created a distinctive cursive writing technique called fraktur (“fractured” pen strokes, akin to those used for calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts) to create highly complex Puzzle Purses, love letters (liebesbrief), and envelopes.
Puzzle Purses still captivate the imagination, providing limitless ways in which to present tokens of love, private messages, or unexpected treats. In fact, there is a modern formal term for this type of paper folding -- “letterlocking” -- defined as “the act of folding and securing an epistolary writing substrate to function as its own envelope or sending device”! Puzzle Purses are not just for Valentine’s Day, however. They can be customized for a wide variety of holidays or special occasions, and are therefore a true labor of love any time of the year.
We hope you will enjoy making, giving -- and getting -- Puzzle Purses!
February 14, 1826 Puzzle Purse made by an American gentleman; Metropolitan Museum of Art collection
Patience is a virtue when it comes to Puzzle Purses, but they are actually much easier to create than they initially seem. Try to do some “rough drafts” with regular letter-sized paper cut to 6” x 6” or 8” x 8” before making one from the paper you really wish to use. It may take a while to visualize the steps, but it does get easier and easier the more you make!
In the modern era, we are also fortunate to have many online how-to videos which may be useful to watch before and while you construct your Puzzle Purse. A few of the ones we watched:
Perusing websites that have slightly different ways of phrasing instructions along with a variety of images might also help. These are the ones we consulted:
Now let's get folding!
It is vital for the paper to be square. Any size will do, but 8” x 8” (cut down from a letter-sized sheet) or 12” x 12” (commonly available as scrapbook paper, decorated on one side) are more useful as they allow for legible writing and drawing on the Puzzle Purse and filling the inside with small decorative items or treats. Try to also choose paper with a bit of “heft,” so that it is sturdy but still folds easily.
Used to both score creases and smooth folds, a bone folder is not necessarily a common household item! Fortunately, any object that is smooth, rounded, and will not scratch or discolor paper can be used instead. Suitable replacements include: the barrel of a pen or marker; the dull edge of a plastic or butter knife; the smooth side of a comb; the bottom of a glass, cup, or bottle; a spatula; a smooth stone.
Markers, pens, colored pencils, watercolors; lace; ribbons; buttons; stickers; sequins; confetti; feathers; wafer candies
You can also write poetry, song lyrics, or other rhymes along the edges of folds and then label flaps and folds with numbers or letters in sequence so the recipient will be able to open, read the contents in logical order, and re-fold the Puzzle Purse.
Glue stick or glue gun
Envelope (may required extra postage to mail)
On the “inside” (undecorated) of the paper, lightly mark equal thirds along the top edge with a pencil. Rotate the paper and repeat on all other sides. (Example: A 12” x 12” paper square will have marks at 4” and 8” on all top edges.) If using paper that is undecorated on both sides, you may want to lightly mark an X in the very center of one side of the paper to establish it as the “inside.” This will help you keep track of which side you are folding.
Still on the “inside” of the paper, take the bottom right corner and fold it up on a diagonal to the upper left corner. Unfold. Repeat with the bottom left corner, folding it up on a diagonal to the upper right corner. Unfold. Your paper square should now have two diagonal “valley folds,” depicted by the dotted lines in the figure above.
Still on the “inside” of the paper, start with either the right or left edge and fold it to meet the one-third mark you made in Step 1 that is farthest away from the edge you are using. Unfold. Repeat with the opposite edge. Unfold. Turn the paper a quarter turn and repeat. Unfold. Your paper square should now have two horizontal and two vertical “valley folds,” depicted by the dotted lines in the figure in Step 2.
Turn the paper to the decorated side (or, side without the center X). Take the bottom right corner and fold it up to the top left corner of the center square (the bold X in the figure above). Unfold. Turn the paper a quarter turn and repeat. Unfold. Repeat twice more. Unfold. These folds have now formed nine squares. The outer squares have one diagonal fold each, while the center square has two diagonal folds, as shown above.
Turn the paper to the “inside” (undecorated) side. It may seem as if it is retaining the folds, which is a good thing! Grasp the edges of the points at two opposite corners and pinch them together in a counterclockwise direction to form the pinwheel shape shown above. The folds may naturally come together, or you may have to manipulate them quite a bit (this is perfectly fine, but can be frustrating -- keep at it!).
Flatten the folds down with your bone folder or substitute, making sure that the “open” (i.e., unfolded) side of each flap is on the left as shown above.
Starting with any flap, fold it up and into the center of the square. Continue in a counter-clockwise direction until all four flaps are folded into the center as shown above. Be sure to flatten them for a tight fit.
Then, take the tip of the last flap and tuck it under the fold of the first flap you folded into the center as shown above. You may have to coax this flap a bit to make it fit under the first flap fold by curling and feeding it into the area.
All the flaps should now be neatly tucked
in and your paper should look like a square again, as shown above.
Congratulations -- you are now done folding!
You may decorate the inside of your Puzzle Purse with drawings or stickers, write verses of poetry, song lyrics, or mottoes along the edges of the folds, or compose an entire love letter on the inside. Some advanced Puzzle Purse crafters with keen spatial visualization skills have even been known to decorate the inside before doing any folding! Many Puzzle Purses, especially those containing long verses, will have flaps with numbers or letters written in sequential order. This helps the recipient know how to open the purse to be able to logically read the verse; ordering flaps also aids in correctly re-folding the Puzzle Purse. Instructions with arrows may instead be placed on flaps (e.g., “Start here,” “Pull gently on opposite points,” or “Lift here”). Inside, you can include confetti, flower petals, mint/chocolate wafers, or anything else your heart desires that will fit (antique Puzzle Purses often contained locks of hair). On the outside, affix lace, sequins, bows, silk/dried flowers, etc. Then, tie it all up with a ribbon, or place within an envelope or gift box. The possibilities are endless!