Paper knives were commonly found on many desks during the Regency. Paper knives were not the same as pen knives, nor were they made for the purpose of opening letters. However, they would become the inspiration for letter openers in the decades which followed the Regency, in the years after the use of adhesive envelopes had become widespread. But during the Regency, paper knives were still just paper knives, a desk accessory which had been developed for a very specific purpose.
The point, or lack thereof, of the paper knife …
Pen knives date back to the Middle Ages, when medieval penmen used them to trim the nibs of their quill pens as they wore down with use. Pen knives were used for that same purpose during the Regency, since quill pens were still the only writing implement available, with the exception of the pencil. Most pen knives had short, sharp blades with a sharp point, thus suiting them perfectly to their purpose of sharpening quills. But those medieval penmen for whom pen knives were developed would have had no use for a paper knife, since they had no paper. The only writing surfaces available to them were parchment and vellum, which were made from animal hides.
By the eighteenth century, paper was widely available in England. By the end of that century, even though it was still mostly hand-made, vast quantities of paper were used in the printing of books, newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, as the population became increasingly more literate. Printing processes had continued to improve at the same time, so that multiple pages could be printed on each side of a large sheet of paper on each pass through the printing press, thus speeding the completion of each print run. Those large sheets were then folded down so that the pages in the book or magazine were in the correct reading order. Once all those folded sheets had been assembled into the completed text block, the fore-edges and the top edges were trimmed to remove the folds and even the edges before the book was bound. Books continued to be printed and assembled in this way, all by hand, until the second half of the nineteenth century, when much of the printing process was mechanized. But during the Regency, as had been the case for decades before, text block edges were trimmed by hand and it was often the case that some of those folds escaped the trimmer. Imagine how annoying it was to come to the middle of an interesting passage which ran on to the following page, only to find the folds of those leaves had not been cut and you could not turn the page to finish the passage.
People who read many books, newspapers, magazines or pamphlets in the eighteenth century often found that there were a number of folds in the leaves of their reading material which had not been cut when those materials were bound. Pen knives were initially used to cut these folds, but the short, sharp blades of a pen knife were difficult to control. Unless wielded with a very steady hand, the use of a pen knife to cut the fold between two leaves often resulted in torn and jagged edges. It was eventually determined that a smooth, rounded edge, rather than a sharp edge, would result in the smoothest, most even cut of the fold between leaves in a book or other printed work. Folding had weakened the fibers in the paper at the point of the fold. When steady pressure was exerted along the fold with a smooth blade, the weakened fibers would give way, resulting in a straight cut. Better results were achieved if the blade used to cut the folds of these leaves was long and smooth, with a rounded point, so there was no risk of damaging the surface of the pages as the folds were cut. Thus was created the paper knife.
By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the paper knife had evolved into an implement with a long, broad blade with rounded edges and a rounded, blunt tip. The smoother the surface of the paper knife, the easier it was to cut folds in book leaves without any damage to the paper. Therefore, the best paper knives were made of ivory, bone or mother-of-pearl. However, paper knives were also made of highly polished hard woods, such as ebony, lignum vitae, walnut, mahogany, and rosewood. There were paper knives made of brass and even a few made of silver or silver-gilt. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, a paper knife was nearly always included as part of a complete set of desk accessories.
Paper knives were used for other purposes beyond cutting folded leaves in books and other reading materials. Paper was made by hand until the second half of the nineteenth century, and was therefore very expensive, so people did not waste it. If someone was sending a note that did not require a full sheet of paper, they would cut the sheet down to the size needed. This was done by folding the paper in half, quarters or whatever was appropriate. The flat of the paper knife blade was used to press the folds in the sheet to a sharp crease, much as a bone folder is used today. These sharp creases could then be more easily cut by the edge of the paper knife blade into a sheet of paper of the correct size for the intended missive.
The correct technique by which to use a paper knife to cut the folds in loose sheets of paper was the same as that used to cut the folds in the leaves in a book. The paper knife should always be placed inside the fold to be cut, with the full length of the blade against the fold. The blade should then be pressed firmly and evenly against the fold until the paper fibers give way. The motion should always be smooth and steady, as any sawing or chopping motion is likely to result in jagged or torn edges. The flat of the paper knife blade can be used to sharpen the crease in a fold in the leaves of a book, just as it can when folding a loose sheet of paper prior to cutting. Sharper creases will result in a cleaner cut.
It is often assumed that paper knives were also used to open letters, much like a letter opener is used today. However, that was not the case. Most letters had writing over nearly entire surface of the sheet of paper, only a small area kept blank for the address, when the finished letter was folded and sealed. If a paper knife had been used to open such a letter, it would certainly have damaged the paper, thus denying the recipient the full enjoyment of their correspondence. Nor could a paper knife be used to break the seal on a letter, as the rounded blade and tip were too thick to easily get under the seal and release it from the paper. In fact, a completely different knife was typically used to break the seal on a letter, the erasing knife. The erasing knife was a small, sharp blade set into a small handle, similar to an X-acto knife of today. These erasing knives were used to gently scrape ink off the surface of the paper when a mistake was made. They were also just the thing to slide under the sealing wax to remove it from the letter it sealed.
The blades of paper knives were always very smooth, but the handles were often ornately carved and decorated. When they were made as part of a desk set, the decorative motifs on the handles were usually designs which matched the ornamentation of other pieces in the set. Custom-made desk sets for the gentry and aristocracy often featured their crest or coat of arms. However, there were also many paper knives which were decorated with floral and animal motifs, classical and historical images, famous buildings as well as popular figures of the day. For example, there were a number of paper knives made during the Regency which featured the image of the Duke of Wellington. However, there are no known extant paper knives which feature the image of the Prince Regent. A few paper knives were made with novelty handles such as a small magnifying glass or telescope, others had small compartments in which tiny items could be stored.
Though paper knives were not used to open letters in the early decades of the nineteenth century, by the second half of the century they had become the prototype of a new desk accessory, the letter opener. This new desk accessory was needed when separate, self-gummed envelopes came into common use. The main differences between a paper knife and a letter opener are the width and the tip of the blade. The blades of letter openers tended to be narrower than paper knives, and the tips of letter opener blades are usually more pointed. Late nineteenth-century letter openers, however, often have highly decorated handles, just as did the paper knives which were used earlier in the century.
Now you should find it easier to distinguish between a paper knife and a letter opener. Paper knives were not used to open letters during the Regency, but they were used to slit the folds of leaves in books and to cut down large sheets of paper for writing short notes or other purposes. Many of them had ornate handles which were highly carved or included a novelty such as a magnifying glass or a storage compartment for diminutive articles. Dear Regency Authors, now that you know how paper knives were used during the Regency, you will be able to ensure your characters use them properly, should you have need of one in support of your story. Though they were called "knives," their blades were so dull they were not at all dangerous, so they would not make an effective weapon. But perhaps a French sympathizer in England has a paper knife with a bust of Napoleon on the handle. The heroine notices it on his desk and realizes that he might be the source of recent leaks of valuable intelligence to the enemy. Or, maybe, there is a secret compartment in the handle of a paper knife, in which is hidden the critical clue to solve the mystery of the story. Might a simple desk accessory play a central role in one of your upcoming books?