Reading & Writing Accessories by Ian Spellerberg

There was a time when the ability to read and write was not widely held. And many of those who enjoyed those skills acquired various implements to aid their activities. Some of those specialized implements were beautifully made and richly ornamented, in particular, those of the bladed variety. But reference material on these objects has always been sparse and hard to find. Until now. Professor Emeritus Ian Spellerberg has spent the past couple of years researching these fascinating objects and has written the first book on the subject. Whether you are collector of antique desk accessories, or are simply beguiled by the creativity and craftsmanship which went into their design and production, you will enjoy perusing the pages of this new book. Though some antique dealers may wish it had never been published.

In the interests of full disclosure, I corresponded with Professor Spellerberg while he was conducting his research. I was also honored to be asked to write opening essays for a couple of sections in this book.

Some of my favorite parts of Reading & Writing Accessories . . .

The full title of this book is Reading & Writing Accessories:   A Study of Paper-Knives, Paper Folders, Letter Openers and Mythical Page Turners, since Professor Spellerberg has focused on the various bladed desk accessories which were made and used, from their origins through the nineteenth century into the twentieth. These implements are often confused today, since few people in the twenty-first century recognize the subtle differences in design which differentiate each specific class of bladed tools. With this book in hand, it will be much easier to distinguish between a paper-knife, a paper folder or a letter opener and to understand the specific purpose to which each would have been put.

Part One of the book is devoted to paper-knives, which are the oldest of these various bladed implements. Here, Spellerberg provides an overview of the history and development of paper-knives, in addition to a chronological listing of primary sources which refer to these implements. However, my favorite section in this part of the book is devoted to the materials used in the making of paper-knives. I knew that paper knives had been made of bone and silver, but I had no idea they had also been made of wood, ivory, mother-of-pearl, as well as various types of stone and ceramic, among other materials. The last section of this part covers the uses of paper-knives. Most surprising to me was that paper-knives were often given as gifts. In some cases, paper-knives with very ornate designs, sometimes embellished with precious or semi-precious gems, were used as presentation gifts to prominent people, well into the twentieth century.

Paper folders, letter openers and "page turners" all derived from the paper-knife, and they are addressed in Part Two of the book, building on the foundation laid in Part One. Today, paper folders are typically plain bone or plastic. But in the nineteenth century, they were made from many of the same materials that were discussed in Part One. Those made of wood were embellished with lovely decorative painting, while those made of bone, mother-of-pearl or silver where often richly engraved with ornate designs. This section also includes a chronological listing of primary sources for these implements.

Letter openers are also based on paper-knives, but their design and blade shape was gradually adapted so that they could better serve the purpose for which they were intended. Spellerberg explains how letter openers were used as they developed, includes a brief time line of the development of paper, and he also provides a time line which shows the chronological progression of the letter opener from the paper-knife. Letter openers were not solely restricted to the desks of the wealthy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their broader popularity meant they were made in a wide array of materials and designs, many of which are discussed in this section. Though one might not think it possible of a simple desk accessory, some of these old letter openers are completely politically incorrect, while others are quite fanciful and charming.

The last item covered in Part Two of the book is the page turner. However, the author tells us he can find no definitive evidence of the existence of this implement. It is for that reason that the subtitle of this book includes the phrase "Mythical Page Turners." Very long paper-knives and other long objects have been labeled "page turners" by various auction houses and antique dealers over the years, accompanied by the story that these objects were used to turn pages of large books, so as not to soil the pages, or to turn the pages of newspapers, so as not to soil the fingers of the reader. Yet, despite his in-depth research, Spellerberg was unable to find anything but anecdotal claims for the existence of these mythical implements. It would appear that it is the Internet which is doing the most to perpetuate the myth of the "page turner." But the author does explain that he has conducted his research with documents available in English, and he leaves the door open for the possibility that there may yet be some reliable documentation of the existence of page turners in other languages.

Collectors will be delighted with the Appendices in this book, which provides details on how to collect and display these bladed desk accessories, as well as how to recognize fakes. It also included a list of collections of these objects which are on display. A reading list for those who wish to expand their knowledge follows the Appendices. The reading list is in turn followed by a substantial index, which further enhances the value of this new reference book.

I have saved the best for last. This book is lavishly illustrated, with photographs and prints of the implements under discussion, many of them in full color. These illustrations are glorious eye-candy for those of us who love antique desk accessories, or for those who appreciate fine craftsmanship and clever designs. There are a number of illustrations in this book which I have never seen anywhere else, which makes it that much more valuable. Reading " Writing Accessories is printed on high quality, glossy paper, which ensures the illustrations are clear and sharp. This book is a wonderful addition to the reference material available on antique desk accessories and will be a treasured addition to the library of many scholars and collectors.

Author’s Note:   Though Professor Spellerberg resides in New Zealand, his book has been published by Oak Knoll Press here in the United States. If you would like to purchase your copy directly from the publisher, you can get the information here:

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.
This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Reading & Writing Accessories by Ian Spellerberg

  1. Joy Hanes says:

    You say in your review “Though some antique dealers may wish it had never been published.” What exactly do you mean by that? I am an antiques dealer and love when new research and new reference books are published. I cannot imagine what you think antiques dealers would find offensive in a book with new information. Please explain.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You will note that I said “some antiques dealers” and I did not use the adjective “reputable.” Though most of the antique dealers I have known over the years have been quite reputable, there have been a few who were not. No profession is without a smattering of bad apples. I am delighted to know that you are one of those on the up-and-up. In which case, you will certainly find this new book of great value.



  2. Sounds a lovely book! My great grandfather had what I think was a letter-opener, in bone, which was in the style of a cut-throat razor. It’s in the drawer of my treadle Singer along with his penknife.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An interesting combination of a letter opener and a penknife, since penknives were becoming less necessary with the introduction of the steel nibbed pen, at about the same time as the letter opener became popular. Something of a cross-roads of objects from times past.



Comments are closed.