Old Blades From Writing Desks

By Ian Spellerberg, Christchurch, New Zealand.

In the 19th Century, writing desks in the west included many accessories. As well as inkwells and pens, there were nib cleaners, ink erasers, paperweights and desk seals. Another kind of accessory could generally be called 'desk blades'. Collectors of old writing accessories have often described as many as four kinds of desk blades. In the English language these were paper-knives (originally called paper cutters), paper-folders, letter openers and page turners. Until recently, the distinction between these blades and their respective histories has not been clarified.

Paper-knives have probably been used ever since paper was invented. For centuries, they have been an essential item for all libraries and writing desks. Their main function was to cut paper by running the blade along a crease in the paper. Paper was expensive and was delivered to large houses, banks, and offices in the form of large sheets. Paper-knives were used on writing desks and were also part of portable writing desks. Another use was to slit open the uncut pages of books, magazines and newspapers. It was not until the late 19th Century that books came with the pages already trimmed.

Such was the essential use of paper-knives that they came in many sizes and were made of many materials. The blades were not sharp like a knife (Editorial Note: the blades of Japanese kami-kiri are quite sharp). The edges of the blades were smooth and thin. The best materials for the blades were ivory, nephrite and silver. This was because the smooth surface of these material allowed the knife to slide through the paper with ease and cut the paper. Inexpensive examples were made of bamboo. Beautiful examples include carved ivory paper-knives made in Japan. The example shown below (Figure 2), with the handle carved with apes amongst grape vine on a rock, was made for the western market. The blade is gold lacquered with trees inlaid with hard-stones in Shibayama style. No paper-knives of this type pre-date the 'opening' of Japan in 1853. This example is therefore an export conception as is the Shibayama-style of work.

The long ivory blade made from an elephant's tusk is definitely a paper-knife because they were illustrated in old trade catalogues from the late 19th Century and were described as paper-knives.

Some paper-knives came with a desk seal at the end of the handle. Others had a quill blade attached to the end. It was not uncommon for some to be sold together with quill pens. Japanese portable writing sets (yatates) date back to the 12th Century and some would include a small knife known as a kami-kiri. Such a knife was probably used for cutting paper, and sharpening quills and pencils.

Paper-knives are celebrated in poems and books. For example in 1879, Henrica Frederic published The Story of a Paper-knife. The characters in the book include a professor and several paper-knives. There are plain paper-knives, a slender, delicately-formed inlaid mother-of pearl paper-knife, and a Japanese carved ivory paper-knife (who is pleasant and polite). Much of the text of this book is taken up by Mr. Japanese Paper-knife?s story and commences 200 years ago in Jeddo. It is a delightful story and celebrates the role of paper-knives in society.

Paper folders (folding sticks) as their name suggests were used to make a smooth crease when the paper was folded. They were used in conjunction with paper-knives prior to the paper being cut. They were also used to crease the folds of a letter. Indeed, there was advice about how to fold a letter:

"in folding a letter let the breadth (from right to left) far exceed the height. A letter least verging towards squareness looks very awkward. It is well to use a folding stick to press along the edges of the folds, and to make them smooth and even. If one is looser than the other, or there is the slightest widening out or narrowing towards the edge of the turn-over, the letter will have a crooked, unsightly appearance". From Miss Leslie's 1874 book New Receipts for Cooking.

Paper folders are known to book conservators and book-binders as bone folders. Such folders have been used for centuries are still used today. Folders made from bone are still a popular choice but they are now made in modern materials such as plastic, teflon, and carbon fibre. Were paper folders used in connection with origami?

Letter openers are not the same as paper-knives and they have quite different histories. A better term for 'letter opener' would be 'envelope opener' because the blade was not used to open the letter but used to slit open the envelope.

Applications for patents for letter openers first appeared in 1864. Letter openers came into popular use towards the end of the 19th Century when postage stamps became widely available (postage stamps were first issued in 1840). Trade catalogues in the late 19th Century illustrated both paper-knives and letter openers.

Letter openers have been made from a diverse array of materials including wood, bone, nephrite, metal, and plastic. Many were made as combination letter openers and pocket knives, hammers, letter scales, and even a measuring tapes.

Despite the decline in the art of writing letters, designers around the world continue to design new letter openers. A particularly simple and elegant design is the Yohei Oki letter opener (brand: name +d from h concept).

Page turners as in ruler-like hand-held blades are commonly mentioned by auction houses around the world. A search on the internet using the terms 'antique page turner', 'silver page turner', 'ivory page turner' or 'wooden page turner' will result in many examples. The descriptions of these page turners includes references to their use for turning the pages of books so that the pages are not soiled by dirty fingers. Similarly there are many accounts of the use of page turners for turning the pages of newspapers so that the ink does not touch the fingers. Other descriptions mention the use of page turners for sacred texts.

Despite two years of searching for examples of 'page turners' in old trade catalogues, the English literature, and old newspaper advertisements, no reference to 'page turners' was found . Indeed all the so called 'page turners' sold by auctions houses and by private vendors via the internet are (according to old trade catalogues) are paper-knives, or paper folders or letter openers. There appears to be no primary evidence in the English language to confirm that these 'blades' were made for turning pages. Following correspondence with English speaking museums and universities around the world, no one has provided evidence of page turners. Indeed some book conservators have described their disbelief that the pages of old books should ever be turned with a 'blade'.

Help from readers would be very much appreciated. This research has been based largely on the English speaking and German speaking world. Some antique dealers say that 'page turners' were used by Japanese scholars. No supporting primary evidence can be found.

There seem to be three basic questions: (1) Are there Japanese paper-knives that were designed for the Japanese market? If so, what did they look like and how were they use; (2) Are there Japanese paper folders and what do they look like? (3) Are there Japanese 'page turners' that were perhaps used by Japanese scholars?

The text and illustrations for this article have been taken from Reading and Writing Accessories: a study of paper-knives, Paper Folders, Letter Openers and Mythical Page Turners by Ian Spellerberg. Published in New Zealand by Cadsonbury Publications and in the USA by Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware.

Ian Spellerberg may be contacted via Oak Knoll Press, U.S.A. or via Cadsonbury Publications, Christchurch, New Zealand.


Figure 1: A paper-knife inserted between uncut leaves of an 1882 book. Each signature has sixteen leaves requiring four cuts to separate the pages of the signature. The paper-knife is from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and is made from palm wood with a chequerboard bone and horn decoration.

Figure 2:From top to bottom. An ivory tusk paper-knife (1896) as advertised in the U.K. Army and Navy Stores catalogues (21 inches, 54 cm); A Japanese ivory paper-knife, late 19th C., the handle is carved with apes among grapevine on a rock and the blade is gold lacquered with trees inlaid with hard-stones in the Shibayama style; a plain ivory paper-knife; paper-knife with a carved snake handle; an ivory paper-knife with an Art Nouveau-style silver handle.

Figure 3:A Japanese yatate with a dip pen (seal attached), ink basin and steel kami-kiri utility knife.

Figure 4:Wooden paper folders. The top example is Mauchline Ware with a postal ruler. The remaining three are also paper folders.

Figure 5:Modern letter openers. From left: 'BIRDIE paper knife' (technically a letter opener) by Yohei Oki, (brand name + d from h concept); a ZEUS letter opener from Greece; Egg letter opener and paper-weight (fun-xional product); Sharman's Trangle letter opener by Hannah Martin (London).

Figure 6:An ivory paper 'blade' sold at auction as a 'page turner'.

Figure 7:A wooden 'blade' sold at auction as a 'page turner'.

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