ISFA News, Volume 9, no. 1 (March, 2003)

ISFA Publishes Ninth Bulletin

During the second week of March ISFA Press mailed Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, Vol. 9 (2002) to members and libraries worldwide. This issue, our largest ever, consists of 366 pages plus a 16-page color insert showing Karajá Indians from Brazil proudly displaying their traditional designs. The cost of printing the book was $6854 ($4983 plus an extra $1871 for the color insert), making it the most expensive volume we’ve issued. It is also the heaviest - the cost of mailing the book to 257 recipients was $848 ($296 for domestic recipients and $552 for international recipients).

Despite the added cost, I’m sure most members will agree that the color insert is a major enhancement. In addition, readers may notice that the quality of the black-and-white photographs has improved. That’s because this year the page negatives were generated directly from computer files (disk-to-film) rather than from LaserJet hardcopies as in past years.

A few readers have complained that two pages in David Nicolai’s Yup’ik article failed to print properly (press ran out of ink). One reader mentioned that the color insert in her copy had come loose. Another stated that the spine of his copy had been crushed in transit, despite the padded envelope. If your copy is flawed in any way, don’t hesitate to contact ISFA Press to request a replacement copy.

If you have a spare moment please send a postcard or an e-mail message to editor Joseph D’Antoni (, to thank him for testing nearly all the instructions in this year’s Bulletin. This is a tedious but vitally important job which benefits us all. There’s nothing worse than struggling with a set of instructions and later learning that the author made a mistake.

Volume 9 is the last of three issues partially funded by a generous gift from the Shiro and Kiyoko Mori Charitable Trust. Their support resulted in the preservation of some truly outstanding string figure collections. The world thanks you!

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 14 new members. If all of last year’s members renew their memberships, we will have 238 members residing in 23 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Michel Spira, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; John L. Cox III, Hong Kong; Chie Suzuki, Nara, Japan; and Pedro Trasmonte, Zafra, Spain. From Canada we welcome Kay Tea, Sarah, and Courtney Glen, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; and Ned Gallagher, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In the United States our new members include: Dolores Davis, Plains, Texas; Alison Frane, College Park, Maryland; Stephanie Joe, Honolulu, Hawaii; Mary Portwood, Whitehouse, Texas; James S. Cox, Nazareth, Pennsylvania; Wendy Dier, Alturas, California; and Steve Schuchmann, St. Louis, Missouri. Rejoining us is Analee Perica of Northridge, California. We’re glad you share our interest and enthusiasm for string figures - welcome!

2003 Membership Dues

Membership renewal forms for 2003 were mailed in late-February, tucked inside the December 2002 issue of String Figure Magazine. Although expenses continue to rise and the global economy continues to spiral downward, we have chosen not to raise dues for the 11th consecutive year. Again we are asking for US$25 from North American members and US$35 from members residing elsewhere. However, if you are able to send more we will gladly accept your donation since dues still do not cover our printing and mailing expenses (see below). Members who submit an extra $25 or recruit a new member will be graciously acknowledged in our September newsletter as a String Figure Angel. Anyone submitting $100 will earn the title of Archangel.

Also, please note that the ISFA now accepts internet payments via Paypal ( There is no fee to use this payment service. The money can be drawn from a major credit card or directly from your bank account. To make a payment, you simply need to know our e-mail address ( Millions of customers worldwide already use this service to pay for items purchased on E-bay. It’s fast and secure.

Financial Report

Because string figures are often viewed as trivial games, many potential ISFA members are surprised to learn that they need to pay dues to gain access to the instructions we publish in our Magazine and Bulletin (you wouldn’t believe how many letters we receive requesting free copies!). Yes, we do promote ourselves as being a not-for-profit organization, but we still need to cover our costs. For this reason we gladly disclose our total annual expenses on our web site. An itemized breakdown is offered here:

Web site visitors: Exact expenses are available to ISFA members only.

Bulletin printing: $X,XXX
Bulletin mailing (domestic): $XXX
Bulletin mailing (international): $XXX
Magazine printing (four issues): $X,XXX
Magazine mailing (domestic): $XXX
Magazine mailing (international): $XXX
Newsletter printing (two issues): $XXX
Member list printing (one issue): $XXX
Web site hosting: $XXX
Internet access: $XXX
Visa/Mastercard merchant fees: $XXX
Post Office Box: $XX
Business License: $XXX
Office Supplies (toner, diskettes): $XXX
Mailing Supplies (envelopes, boxes): $XXX
Photocopies: $XXX

Total annual expenses for 2002: $XX,XXX

That’s one expensive hobby! Given 250 members, each should be paying $54 annually, but I suspect that half our members would fail to renew if we doubled our membership fee. Therefore, we will continue to charge $25 (plus $10 for over seas postage) and rely on voluntary donations to make up the difference.

Help Us Redesign Our Web Site

The ISFA launched its web site way back in 1994, long before the internet became an essential communication tool. Although we continue to update the content on a regular basis, the appearance of our simple site has not changed much over the years. Granted, a fancy high-tech site is not really needed, and perhaps doesn’t mesh with the low-tech simplicity that string figures embody. Still, it would be nice to have more photos, better organized links, a search engine, a site map, a downloadable membership application, sample pages from our publications, and more color (something more appealing than black text and blue links on a white background).

Ideally our web site could offer a full suite of e-commerce features, including an online application form, a shopping cart feature to facilitate the purchase of Bulletin and Magazine back issues (either printed or digital versions), and the ability to pay for items (including memberships) instantaneously using a credit card. Many consumers have become accustomed to the convenience of these features and will quickly move on to a competitor’s site if these features are lacking (thank goodness we have no competitors yet!).

Unfortunately, e-commerce features like these are expensive to maintain (a substantial monthly fee is required), and the hosting agency often demands a percentage of sales. Furthermore, by offering instant memberships we run the risk of attracting “fad” or “impulse shoppers” whose interest in string figures is shallow and short-lived. Currently, we ask potential members to write us an old-fashioned letter accompanied by a dues payment. Yes, the procedure requires effort and patience, but so does the making of string figures from written instructions! So, by making the application procedure a bit tedious we automatically select members with the desired qualities. Members who can actually make the figures described in our Bulletin are far more likely to rejoin each year and thus provide us with the steady financial support we need to prosper.

Anyway, if you’re good at designing web pages and would like to volunteer your services, consider sending us a few sample pages. Since we can’t afford mass-media advertising, the internet is our only hope for reaching long-lost stringers. Please help us make our one-and-only web site as enticing as possible -- and a fine educational resource too!

ISFA Conference in 2004?

New members often ask, “When will the ISFA have another conference or gathering?” (our first was in Winnipeg in 1998). Certainly nothing beats a live demonstration or a hands-on workshop when it comes to learning string figures. But because we are an international organization with members living quite far apart, the cost of traveling to such a gathering is prohibitive in most cases. A centralized accessible location would be most desirable, especially if lodging and food are cheap. Furthermore, it would be nice if the location had some significance to string figure buffs, or provided us with an opportunity to collect and teach string figures. Two cities seem to meet these criteria for a gathering in 2004: St. Louis, Missouri (USA) or Montreal, Quebec, (Canada).

Option 1 - St. Louis: Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the St. Louis World’s Exposition, an event immortalized in the famous Judy Garland movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”. From Opening Day on April 30th, 1904, to the closing ceremonies of December 1st of the same year, the St. Louis World’s Fair played host to nearly 20 million visitors, who witnessed the public debut of air conditioning, were able to ice skate throughout the entire summer, and spoke by wireless telegraph to cities 1500 miles away. Influential living anthropology exhibits featured more than a thousand Filipinos, Native American Indians, Ainu of Japan, Tehuelche Indians of Patagonia, Pygmies of the Congo and many other peoples displayed for the entertainment and education of fair-goers. In the autumn of 1904 Philadelphia socialite Caroline Furness Jayne spent several weeks among the natives gathering string figures for her 1906 book, this being the first book devoted entirely to string figures and their manufacture.

The 1904 World’s Fair Charitable Foundation is currently organizing a series of events to commemorate the centennial anniversary. As mentioned in their March 2003 newsletter, Steve Edison, board member in charge of international affairs, has contacted many countries that were represented in Forest Park at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition & III Olympiad (as it was called then). He has gotten virtually all of the countries who were represented at the 1904 World’s Fair to participate in this centennial celebration. Nearly 50 countries are represented, and 75 ethnic societies and churches in and around St. Louis will hold festivals in 2004 with a Centennial Celebration theme. Continuous activities will be held throughout the St. Louis area next year from April 30th through December 1st. A few examples are a Craft Show from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; a Paris Fashion Show; The Royal Ballet of England, which will include a display of Wedgewood china; and much more. A gathering of the ISFA and a demonstration of the string figures Jayne collected might be a welcomed addition. The foundation’s web site, which includes a video clip of film footage shot at the fair in 1904, can be accessed at:

A wealth of historical accounts and fair photos can be found at the following sites:

Meet me at the fair... (

Terry’s 1904 World’s Fair Page (

Option 2 - Montreal: A second option would be to attend and participate in the 4th World Festival of Traditional Games and Sports. This is a highly professional event sponsored by TAFISA (Trim and Fitness International Sport for All Association), a global organization recognized by UNESCO and the International Olympic Committee, with members in 150 countries. Every four years, major cities compete to host their festival. Previous festivals were held in Bonn (1992), Bangkok (1996), and Hannover (2000). The 4th Festival will be held in Montreal from July 30 to August 8, 2004 at Parc Jean-Drapeau, a magnificent island site in the St. Lawrence River, where more than 70 delegations will come together to demonstrate their centuries-old traditional sports and games.

The Festival focuses on the variety of activities to be presented, as well as their distinctive and spectacular character. When selecting the activities that will be included in the program, the organizers focus on those that will be most likely to amaze spectators by their colorfulness and use of various forms of expression or rituals (traditional costumes, music, dance, games of skill, etc.). Several Canadian Indian tribes have officially endorsed the gathering and plan to attend. In 2004, the Festival will grant a special place to the Aboriginal peoples of the entire world, giving them an opportunity to make others more aware of their passion for physical activity and their contribution to the development of modern customs.

Lothar Walschik and his traveling band of stringers were warmly received at the 3rd Festival in Hannover. Even if we don’t qualify as official delegates (the requirements are rather strict), we could certainly hold a concurrent meeting and possibly gather figures from festival participants.

The festival organizers have already constructed an extensive web site with pages in English, French and Spanish. You can access it at:

Organizing an ISFA gathering is an enormous task, far beyond the capabilities of the small volunteer staff that currently processes membership applications and edits publications. If you have lots of free time on your hands and enjoy organizing events we would certainly like to hear from you! Duties would include contacting the hosting foundations, submitting registration materials, securing workshop or performance space, and coordinating lodging, food, and local transportation for attendees.

Son of John L. Cox Joins ISFA

On page 2 of her book, Caroline Furness Jayne writes, “Mr. John L. Cox has gathered games for me from the Klamaths, Tewas, Omahas, and Onondagas, and I collected string figures from the Navahos, Osages, Chippewas and Apaches at the St. Louis Exposition.” Indeed, some of the most impressive string figures in her book are attributed to John L. Cox, who collected them at Hampton, Virginia, from a Klamath Indian named Emma Jackson of Oregon. These include Owl’s Net, Two Elks, A Rabbit, The Sun, A Rattlesnake and a Boy, Two Skunks, Two Foxes, Two Squirrels, A Porcupine, Two Little Boys Running Away, A Little Fish that Hides in the Mud, A Little Boy Carrying Wood, A Brush House, A Six-Pointed Star, and Two Boys Fighting Over an Arrow. It’s not clear who John L. Cox was, how he became proficient at making string figures (especially since very little had been published prior to 1906), or how he knew Mrs. Jayne. Nor is it clear how Emma Jackson came to Virginia.

Fortunately, we may soon know the answers to some of these questions. In late January, a fellow by the name of James S. Cox requested membership in the ISFA. In his letter he wrote, “My father collaborated with Carolyn Jane [sic] when she wrote her book.” James S. Cox, now 85, was born 12 years after Jayne published her book and 9 years after she died, so obviously he never knew her. But it will be interesting to hear his recollections of his father’s string figure activities (an interview is forthcoming). In his letter James S. Cox also requested a membership for his son, John L. Cox III, now living in Hong Kong. It’s truly inspiring to know that the Cox family has maintained an interest in string figures for over a hundred years!

ISFA Acquires Signed Copy of Jayne’s Book

Most members of the ISFA are proud owners of Jayne’s String Figures and How to Make Them, published by Dover in 1962. Amazingly, the book is still in print! However, not everyone realizes that the Dover paperback is a reprint of a book simply titled String Figures published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in February, 1906. It’s not clear when the first edition went out of print, but prior to 1962 it’s quite likely that Jayne’s book was difficult to obtain (and xeroxing a library copy was not an option back then). Copies of the first edition are still difficult to obtain, with clean copies selling for more than US$300. In university libraries the first edition is often found in the Rare Book collection.

Copies of the Dover paperback, adorned with a purple cover and three string figures from Nauru, currently sell for $8.95 - a bargain considering the book has over 400 pages. Some of the earlier reprints (originally priced at $2) have light green or white covers, and signatures that are stitched rather than glued. Unlike the reprints, first editions are hardbound and have dark blue covers with gold lettering. Furthermore, first editions measure 19 by 27 cm, these being much larger than the Dover reprints (13.5 by 21.5 cm).

How many copies did Mrs. Jayne actually sign? That’s hard to say. She died three years after the book was published. Fortunately, the ISFA was recently able to negotiate the purchase of a signed copy from an antique book dealer in New York. The inscription reads “With the complements of the author, Caroline Furness Jayne, March, 1906.” Prior to purchasing the book, the signature was verified by comparing it with letters written from Mrs. Jayne to her father in the 1890s (housed in the University of Pennsylvania Archives).

Jayne’s book is a treasure trove of information that continues to amaze and entertain even the most seasoned string figure enthusiast. Let’s hope it is still in print three years from now when the book turns 100!

ISFA Honors Argentine String Scholar José Braunstein

Just when you think you’ve finally identified and studied all the major published collections of traditional string figures (and have posted them at, a new collection surfaces that simply blows you away! José Braunstein’s Gran Chaco collection is a prime example.

The Gran Chaco is a vast plain that spans parts of northern Argentina, northwestern Paraguay and southeastern Bolivia with a small portion in southwestern Brazil. For the past 30 years Dr. José A. Braunstein has been studying the Indian tribes that still inhabit this region and the string figures they make. So far, Dr. Braunstein and his students have recorded methods for making several hundred individual designs. His descriptions, written in Spanish, can be found in various issues of Hacia una nueva carta etnica del Gran Chaco, published in the 1990s by the Centro del Hombre Antiguo Chaqueño in Las Lomitas, Argentina.

ISFA bibliographers were completely unaware of these outstanding publications until last year when Brazilian string scholar Chang Whan cited Braunstein’s articles in her dissertation on Karajá String Figures (excerpted in Vol. 9 of our Bulletin). After a few months of internet surfing Dr. Braunstein’s remote field office was finally located and copies of his publications were requested. The arrival of his heavy parcel, adorned with dozens of colorful Argentine stamps, was a joyous occasion. Inside were three thick journals filled with detailed instructions, clean line drawings (including hands!), comparative notes, an index, and tables listing the informant, the native name, the Spanish name, synonyms, and a wealth of other useful data. Nothing could be finer!

Braunstein’s articles include methods for making many of the ornate patterns illustrated by Stig Rydén in his 1934 survey of South American string figures, most of which are known only from their finished patterns (see, for example, ‘Quebracho Tree’). In addition, Braunstein and his colleagues were able to collect Chaco methods for making most of the unsolved Karajá and Tapirapé figures depicted in our latest Bulletin.

Quebracho or “Axe-Breaker” Tree (Schinopsis balansae), collected from the Toba Indians of the Gran Chaco region.

Digesting the wealth of data in his articles is likely to take years. The preparation of an English translation is also envisioned. In the meantime look for selected figures in forthcoming issues of our Magazine.

In addition to being director of the Centro del Hombre Antiguo Chaqueño, Dr. Braunstein is a principal investigator with CONICET, the government sponsored Council of Scientific and Technical Investigators in Argentina. His pupils include Isabel Balducci, author of an obscure but lengthy 1981 report on the string figures of the Toba-Taksék indians of the central Chaco. One of her figures (‘Tiger’s Mouth’) appeared in the June 1999 issue of our Magazine. In exchange for his generosity the ISFA sent Dr. Braunstein a complete set of Bulletin back issues.

Palo borracho or “Drunk Wood” Tree (Chorissia insignis), collected by Braunstein from the Maká Indians of the Gran Chaco region. This bottle-shaped tree has a swollen trunk.

Last updated May 28, 2003
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