Paper Fortune-Teller – An American Childhood Classic

“When I was in elementary school, my friends and I used to make this folded paper-contraption, kind of like origami, that was supposed to tell fortunes. Basically, you had to fold a standard piece of loose-leaf, like, 10 times. On each of the folds you would write numbers and colors, and then on the inside flaps, you would write some kind of fortune, like who you would marry or where you would live or what your job would be–or even all of the above.  One person would be the one to ‘move’ the paper contraption back and forth, while the other person would choose the numbers/colors. For example, the if the person chose 3, you would move the paper back and forth 3 times before stopping on the configuration that showed the colors. Then they would choose the color, and the person would read the fortune underneath.”

Context: The informant, ER, is student was born and raised in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, CA. She was a very outgoing and enjoyed doing lots of fun activities with her friends, including making lip-synced music videos and playing quirky games. This game was something that ER and her friends did a lot, repeating the fortune-telling over and over again in order to hopefully get a fortune that was favorable. However, only a few of the friends were capable of constructing the contraption, so you had to ask them to make one for you if you need wanted one of you own.

Analysis: Based on the insights of ER, I can see the how this game is an important piece of children’s folklore that tell us a lot about our culture and the way that children see the world and their lives. With this particular game, we can see how children want to grow up and know more about their future and what they would be like. There is always a level of uncertainty for the future throughout our lives, however, the amount of control that we have over our future as a young child is much less than when we become older and more mature. Children are always anticipating what the future holds for them, and this game is a way to bring some wisdom to this struggle and help them alleviate the uncomfortableness of the uncertainty. Another example of a children’s folk game that involves fortune-telling is a game-called MASH. This game involves writing down lists of various components of one’s future, like spouse name, job and house style and use a specific number to determine which of components on the lists will be your future.

Along with this, the fact that only a few people had the ability to manufacture the paper object, it also created a bit of a power dynamic between the children that want to participate in the game, and those who are able to provide this game. Another interesting fact about this game was the fact that I also grew up with this, despite the fact that I live across the country in Rhode Island. This is demonstrative of the how children across the country are sharing their traditions and customs with each other, and disseminating it moreover. For another version/purpose of this paper device, see Mechling, Jay. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. Edited by Elliot Oring. pp. 105.