A Paper Knife Was Not a Letter Opener

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?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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46 Responses to A Paper Knife Was Not a Letter Opener

  1. Charlotte Frost says:

    Ah, those tantalising pages that remain uncut to this day. If the books were mine, not a library’s, would I have the courage to use a paper knife?

    PS: Belated but heartfelt congratulations on your publishing news. Do keep us informed.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ah, the centuries-old dilemma, to cut or not to cut? It can be an incredibly important decision, since in many cases, cutting pages can significantly reduce the value of a book. There are collectors who will pay much higher prices for “uncut” books, particularly first editions.

      During the course of my research, I discovered that in the olden days, when book buyers sent the text block to their book binder, some directed the binder not to cut the pages, since they preferred to do it themselves. I suspect those book owners may have had more than one paper knife, if they had a large library.

      I admit to having cut a few pages in my time, but usually the pages of used books I picked up for research and only because I really needed to read those hidden pages. But I still had to screw up my courage to do it!

      Thank you for your congratulations on my book. It is a Regency romance, but I have done my best to get the history right, so I hope people will enjoy it.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. helenajust says:

    Thank you for this most useful post. I should be interested in your views on page turners; I have wondered whether in fact they were paper knives. Did such things exist? And if they did, how does one distinguish them from paper knives?

    I am intrigued by Charlotte Frost’s reference to “your publishing news”!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Page turners did exist, but they were a Victorian invention. From the few I have seen, they were very similar to paper knives and could have been used as paper knives. Their most distinguishing feature was that they tended to have longer blades. Most paper knives had a blade which was eight to nine inches long, while most paper turners had blades of over a foot long.

      Page turners were rather more trouble than they were worth, so not a lot of them were made. They were difficult to handle and if they were not used carefully, they could damage the pages of the books they were supposed to protect.

      As to the publishing news, along with writing the articles I post here, I have been writing a Regency romance. It was recently accepted by a publisher.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Another great post and such a small detail, but so very evocative. Thank you.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked it. As they say, the devil is in the details, so I wanted to share the details about pen knives. It is often those little things which can make a difference to a story.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. All obvious when you stop to think about it, but your genius, Kat, is in having stopped to think about it, and making us do the same. I have also cut a few pages in my time, and have usually used my great granddad’s bone letter opener, which is made to resemble a folding cut-throat razor. [about 1890 vintage]. I confess to being more interested in the contents than in preserving the virgin folds because I’m a booklover before I’m a bibliophile proper….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Now you have put me to the blush!

      For me, it is the little things which can often ground a scene in reality. And the correct ways of using things from the past are becoming lost over time, so I want to capture as many of those details as I can.

      How cool to have your grandfather’s letter opener. A bone blade is perfect for cutting book pages.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. elfahearn says:

    A bit of poison might fit nicely in a paper knife as well as a clue. I’m going to forward your post to Elizabeth Shore, who’s working on an historical with all kinds of deadly things being concocted.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You and Sarah really are virtual twins! 😉 You always see ways to do mischief with the most innocent things!

      =^..^=

      • Nous? >innocent look<
        I confess I hadn't come up with a way to do murder with a paper knife, actually my g-g'father's is sturdy enough to stab someone with if you knew what you were doing [you could take out the jugular or stick it up the nose into the brain I guess] but it IS a letter opener so it DOES have a bit of a point. Poison eh? like a reputed Borgia ring? Now when I first read this, my thoughts turned not to poison inside but a contact poison on the hilt to kill an avid reader by absorption through the skin….
        there's a limit to the ones that can be absorbed through the skin, I'm inclined to think dusting the pages of a book with poison if anyone with a habit of licking their fingers to help them turn the pages might be more sure and certain… mmm well, there ARE certain vegetable compounds that do absorb through the skin but I'm wondering how much deadly content they'd have, otherwise all I can think of is cinnabar, which is very nasty, but also very RED. Research needed here…

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Oh, yes, so innocent! From a woman who got a plot bunny for a murder mystery from the post about Mrs. Wright’s embroidery school! 😉

          Years ago, there was a Murder, She Wrote episode in which a woman killed her husband by poisoning the pages of his book, since he was one of those who licked his fingers before he turned each page. But I cannot remember which poison was used.

          I suspect that both you and Elf will be quite delighted with next week’s post, since it actually deals with poison.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • elfahearn says:

            LOL! It takes so little to get us plotting. Cinnibar as poison, eh? I used to wear that perfume with no idea it shared the name of a deadly substance.

          • OOH I missed that one, I haven’t seen them all I know… oh well, another idea gone west in a cloud of plagiarism… Elf, Cinnabar was used as the basis for vermillion paint and was prepared with great care as it could give off toxic vapours – mercury vapour in fact, same as what caused hatters and makers of ormolu pieces to go mad – and it CAN be absorbed through the skin and in sufficient quantities cause death with vomiting and voiding. The inclusion of it into rouge and lip reddening in Georgian times is quite frightening [the white lead painted onto faces can’t be absorbed through the skin but maybe once the skin is damaged by cinnabar rouge it made more sores?] and I have to say I’d as soon stick to something much safer like alkanet root. [I fight a continual losing battle with the alkanet in my garden. Like nettles you can have too much of a good thing]

            • elfahearn says:

              Alkanet — never heard of it until now. It’s very pretty — I love the blue flowers. So the roots create red dye? A Google image also showed blue dye as well as purple. Are the additional colors the result of additives? And, perhaps my most important question, is alkanet deer resistant?

              (Kat, I’m sorry I’m hijacking your blog for non-historical purposes, but we have the most fascinating discussions here and I always learn something new.)

              • I’ve never heard of a blue dye from it, perhaps that’s from the leaves not the root? It might of course be the mordant used, as mordant can dramatically change the effects of dyes. the root produces a colour that could loosely be called faded magenta on cloth [I really am going to have to get the husband to harvest me some, I’m allergic to the wretched plant] a pinker shade than you get from dandelion roots. dried and powdered and, I believe, mixed in with a mix of beeswax and sweet oil it makes a lip colourant, I think powdered it goes on as is for a cosmetic. Kat has a link to an excellent blog about Georgian cosmetics somewhere in the side bar, I’m sure… I only recently found out about its cosmetic use as I’m more a textile historian and it’s an alternative to madder which needs a lime soil to grow really well [in common with most of the best dye plants].

                I just looked it up and find that it can impart a blue or purple colour when used to dye soap and in strongly alkaline conditions, so it’s got some kind of natural litmus effect, that’s very interesting. It was apparently also used to dye inferior wines a darker red, which starts a HEAP of plot bunnies about cheating wine merchants/smugglers/butlers etc, though imbibing it is not nowadays recommended. The common name is dyer’s bugloss by the way. the active ingredient of the dye is orcein, and a secondary name is orchanet, from which Alkanet derives, presumably because the colour is similar to that produced by the lichen orchil which also contains orcein, and was a common medieval and early modern dye alongside the various colours obtained by madder, and before before the production of Turkey Red, [alizarin crimson] became a craze. Turkey red is a madder-derived colour with many steps in the production and which became cheap after the mid 19th century when synthetic alizarin was produced.

                Look, you didn’t ought to get me onto dyes, I can be boring for hours given half a chance.

                I should think it’s deer proof. It’s Sarah in a mad fit of trying to stop it taking over the garden proof.
                Leave just the tiniest scrap of root in the ground and it WILL come back. It’s the Terminator of the plant world, It’ll be back. It’s related to Borage but is hairier and take care if you are prone to plant allergies, it can give a nasty rash. As a tea it’s expectorant and cleansing, a febrifuge and calmative.

              • elfahearn says:

                Sarah, your knowledge of dyes is extraordinary, and don’t worry about going on a bit. I read Kat’s blog because it’s so much fun to learn — and to learn from folks who write well is just an added bonus.
                Since I do have allergies and now can only weed with a face mask on, I’ll forgo planting alkanet. My yard is already under attack from wisteria. It’s another of those tiny-bit-of-root-is-all-it-takes kind of plants.

              • hot damn! every time I try to grow wisteria it dies on me… it’s a skin attack not a lung attack from alkanet, but you CAN buy powdered alkanet root online, I checked. There are some very good dye sites – I’ve tried 5 years running to grow woad but I can’t get enough lime into our strongly acid soil. [we have the same soil as reduced the Sutton Hoo skeletons to be sand shadows].
                I may have to blog more about dyes…
                Grow a walnut tree and onions.. brown and yellow dyes AND you get something edible!

              • elfahearn says:

                Sarah, your faith that I’d actually be able to concoct a dye is touching. I have trouble boiling Rit. No, I am happy to read about dyes because I think it would be an interesting plot point. I’ve never seen a romance that uses them.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                There may be a some good reasons that dyes do not appear in most fiction. Many of the materials from which dyes are made REALLY stink, like the woad which Sarah is trying so hard to grow. Indigo also gives off quite an obnoxious smell during the dyeing process. Then, there is cochineal, the powerful red dye used to make all those ever-so-attractive red coats for the army. It is made of thousands of tiny bugs, so discussing the source of that dye could be rather gross. There is also the fact that most natural mordants, the chemicals which actually set the colors in the cloth, are often smelly and a number of them are highly toxic.

                The dying processes used during the Regency would have been smelly, dangerous, and many of them took a very long time. Hours of boiling and stirring, with noxious fumes constantly rising from the vats. Dyers were frequently banned from setting up shop anywhere near settled areas due to the hazardous and odoriferous nature of their work.

                As a quilter, I have done a fair bit of dying, but I have only used modern synthetic dyes. Strange as it may seem, those modern synthetic dyes are significantly safer to use than are the so-called “natural” dyes. They also have very little odor, so they do not offend my neighbors when I indulge in a dying weekend.

                Regards,

                Kat

              • Haha, Elf, I use dying extensively in my third Felicia and Robin [Renaissance] mystery, ‘Died True Blue’, which has a woad-dipper stinking his way through the plot… dyers were required by statute to have their dyehouses out of town. There is a point at which a lingering smell is a clue… I’ve done some natural dyeing and I’m pleased that modern woad dyeing can be speeded up by artificial additives of oxidants that take most of the smell out of it, but I tend to stick to the less offensive ones [the worst I usually use is onion skins, but I DO have a detached house surrounded by garden, so the neighbours notice less. Our deeds don’t permit horse slaughtering or glue making, but say nothing about dyeing…. ] I do like to have a go at anything I’m writing about! Tie-dying t-shirts with 30 6-year-olds in onion skins is, however, not an experience I’d willingly repeat. I would certainly agree with Kat that modern chemical dyes are less noxious than natural dyeing, anyone with a choice would probably be mad to go for vegetable dyes [and I have to make the pun here and say maybe not mad but madder] but then nobody ever said I counted as entirely sane…

  6. That’s facinating! I never even thought about it. Glad I haven’t mentioned an instrument in any of my books.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article.

      Even if you had mentioned a paper knife in one of your books, I would not worry over-much about it. I doubt many of your readers would know what it was or how it was used. It is a pretty esoteric desk accessory these days. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  7. What a wonderful post! I’m a Regency writer too, but I hadn’t realised about that extremely useful device for miniature items in the end of the paper knife. Also didn’t know nearly as much as this about them, so thank you!

    I write historical mysteries now too, set in late Georgian times, so I’m gleefully salting this away for a future book….

    Best
    Liz

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

      You are more than welcome to post a comment here with links to any books you might publish which include a paper knife. That way, readers of this article will be able to easily locate your books if they would like to read them.

      Regards,

      Kat

    • Well give us the DETAILS please, Liz!

  8. Hurrah! I just introduced a paper knife, and then came by here to check out the details. I’ve used it to extract a bullet from a dead woman, in the hopes of mould marks on it like the Staffordshire case solved by a genuine Bow Street Runner. My Runner is meeping that he needs surgeon’s instruments.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I love it!!! A paper knife would actually be perfect, since it would be less likely to leave any marks of its own on the bullet.

      Please do post a link to your book here when it is available.

      Regards,
      Kat

  9. Hi, just seen this; absolutely fascinating stuff! In the book trade I’ve come across a few uncut books, but always thought the best thing was to cut, as it makes the book readable. I suppose it depends on the collector/market. But I used a sharp kitchen knife, and that did a pretty good job (very clean edges). Interesting to hear of other methods.

    I also imagine the page turner is born out of the paper knife? Would be interesting to know the transition point, as I have a rather wonderful bone piece which is quite clearly regency (not twirly or fine enough to be Victorian, and the patina is spot on) and therefore (I suppose) a paper knife, and not a letter opener or page turner?

    Regardless, great stuff, and thank you for sharing.
    George, HistoryThroughOldBooks

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the article. You are quite right, it very much depends upon the collector and the market with regard to cutting book pages. Though I collect books, I collect them to read, so I do cut any uncut pages. However, I have a friend who collects books as an investment and he never cuts the pages. He wants them in the most original condition possible, which typically brings him a higher price upon resale. Personally, I find that rather sad, since to me, the whole raison d’être of a book is to be read. But, to each his own.

      Depending upon the type of paper, a sharp knife might give a clean cut, but it requires a very steady hand. The more rounded edge of a paper knife, especially used to cut rag paper with a sharp fold, will result in a more gentle, slightly softer looking cut edge, which many bibliophiles prefer.

      Interesting that you should mention the page turner, since I have recently been corresponding with a gentleman who is doing research into that very subject. He has not been able to verify the existence of such devices by that name before the mid-twentieth century. They appear to have acquired that designation from antique dealers, apparently in an effort to make such items more attractive to their customers. He will be publishing an article on the subject in the near future and I will provide the bibliographic citation to his article here when it is available.

      The bone piece which you have described sounds much more like a paper knife than the mythical page turner.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

  10. Pingback: Paper Knife - Ten Random Facts

  11. 8xqtw3 says:

    Fascinating. Found this through a search as I kept seeing films where they have to cut the pages while reading – Persona (1966), and recently The Last Metro (1980).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It was fairly common to find books with at least a few uncut leaves well into the twentieth century. Modern binding machines have mostly eliminated that feature of books today, which is too bad, IMHO, since I like that bit of mystery and anticipation I feel when I must pause in my reading to carefully cut a pair of leaves apart. And, of course, those who read eBooks will never have that experience. How sad for them.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  12. After using this letter opener all my years, you write this informative article, and I really have a
    “paper knife”. It has a sterling design on the handle (knife part) and Dunham and Smith name
    on the other side. Your never too old to learn something new and exciting. Thank you.

  13. Jane says:

    Kat, I guess all the Regency writers need to know what this is!

    But I actually needed to use one in the 1970s.

    See the haiku that I wrote,(https://youreadermejane.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/tjs-weekly-household-haiku-challenge-paperknife-book-learning/ ) as part of TJParis’s Weekly Household Item Haiku (https://amaviedecoeurentier.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/tjs-household-haiku-paperknife/)!

    Yours was the only post I could find anywhere that actually explained the printing process that required the use of this knife. Thanks – good job!

  14. Rodrigo Neves says:

    Dear Kat,

    Very interesting post. Thank you!
    I have two ivory paper knives and I have used them to open some old books. I love desk accessories.
    See if you can help me. Have you noticed that some letter opener with ivory or mother of pearl handles and silver blades are actually fruit knives? I believe some times the antique dealer take them to the silversmith to be transformed and look like a letter opener. My questions is how to identify antiques letter openers from fruit knives?

    Regards

    Rodrigo Neves

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      For some reason, which completely escapes my understanding, it was very common to pair fruit knives with a number of different desk accessories from the late eighteenth century right through the Regency. Pen knives were often made of a pair with a fruit knife, as were some letter openers. Therefore, it is entirely possible that you will come across such items, which have not been tampered with in any way.

      Most antique dealers are very honorable people and they would not risk their reputation by making the kinds of changes to an object which you suggest. Also, it is important to keep in mind that in times past, most people did not assign specific purposes to their possessions. They used whatever object was at hand to accomplish a task and did not really care what it might have been called by its manufacturer. So, fruit knives might well have been used to open letters.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  15. Lara says:

    Hi, I was very thankful to find your post, and I wanted to correct the information on wikipedia which says that a pen knife is a letter opener without explaining the difference. Can you recommend a link or book title that would make an excellent source? I like to be a stickler for these things.

  16. Pingback: Tolstoy Put Pen to Paper – Margret puts pen to paper

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