Paper Knife or Letter Opener
While working on a letter opener for a customer, I started thinking about a scene from one of my favorite television shows, Downton Abbey. Lady Violet becomes convinced that her young gardener pocketed her valuable paper knife from the sitting room where she is often seen reading her correspondence, and I couldn't stop wonder if letter opener were just another term, a less poetic term, for paper knife.
Spoiler alert: no. They're actually two very different things.
The paper knife, a fashionable and useful desk instrument of the 18th and 19th century, was specifically created to open book pages that went uncut during the publishing process. Paper knives were given deliberately dull edges so that they would cut the page's paper seam or fold, but wouldn't damage the paper itself. Long before technology and machinery was used to ensure a book's construction, books were entirely handmade and pages that missed the cutting blade often went unnoticed. Sensible readers invested in paper knives, which helped retain the book's integrity and value.
Want to know more about 18th century book construction? Check out The Regency Redingote's notes on the subject!
Fun Fact: before the invention of the paper knife, pen knives were often used to open book pages. Pen knives, which were used for sharpening quill pens, were unsuitable to the task and often damaged the very books the reader wanted to protect. *courtesy of tenrandomfacts.com
Back to the letter opener! Letter openers became popular during the 19th century after envelopes went into mass production. At the same time, postage rates were dropping, which created the perfect conditions for written correspondence to become mainstream. The letter opener was not only useful for opening correspondence, it was a luxury item that could be offered at a range of price points. Common letter openers made of metal and celluloid were sold on the cheap or given freely as advertising collateral. Upscale letter openers crafted from ivory, precious metals, and adorned with jewels and ornamental embellishment went for stunning prices and became a coveted collectable.
Want to learn more? Visit Mountain States Collector and learn more about some very fancy, VERY FANCY, letter openers!
Want to know the very simple reason I love a good letter opener? Is it because I like to keep my envelopes looking crisp? No. Is it because I want to keep my fingers away the unimaginable amount of bacteria on both sides the envelope - I mean, someone probably licked it?! No. Maybe. Maybe, it's that, but there's a better reason.
Because I really hate paper cuts.
And remember, it's not a paper knife. It's a letter opener!