The Remarkable Secret History of the Paper Knife

Is this a paper knife or a letter opener? Good question. The paper knife was not intended for opening letters, as the name suggests it was used for paper. Not any old paper either, paper knives evolved for cutting the leaves  of books.



In the early days of industrial book printing on the Stanhope Presses of the early 1800s, books were printed on long reams of uncut paper, and folded into a zig-zag, bound on one side and cut on the other. A missed cut was commonplace, so for everything from newspapers to pamphlets and books, a paper knife was essential. Prior to the 1800s, books were made in much smaller volumes, so paper knives were around but didn’t become a must-have desk accessory until the mid-1800s.

The letter opener, on the other hand, was an offshoot of the paper knife. They were often a little more experimental in design, thinner and longer to slip into the un-gummed slit in an envelope. Interestingly, like the paper knife, these also were in use but not commonplace until the mid-1800s when the flat-rate postal service evolved in Europe and America. However, we can say that as the postal service came a little later than books, the paper knife pre-dates the letter opener.



Over time, the letter opener and paper knife became more or less interchangeable, a matter of personal taste for the lady or gentleman who used it. Of course, as with anything that starts life as functional but is constantly on display, it wasn’t long before these tools were made in precious metals, enamelled or set with gems. More often than not, they were engraved with the initials of their owner. Over time, although the need for them disappeared with the advent of better printing presses and email, they have remained desktop accessories that get a lot of attention. They are highly collectable, too and often fetch decent prices at auction.

Our paper knives are designed to blend utility with history but bring these venerable blades well and truly into the 21st Century. The timeless dagger shape and contoured blades mean they will open anything that comes through your letterbox with ease. The handle is a complex open worked design that began life on a computer, was mastered on a 3D printer, then cast and finished by hand in the traditional way. The results are something that would have been recognisable in the 1700s, but impossible to reproduce until the 2010s. 



American politician Patrick Henry uttered the immortal words “Give me liberty or give me death!” in Virginia, 1775. A speech that resounded through history. At the end of it, for added emphasis he pretended to plunge a dagger into his chest. But wait… that was no dagger. It was his trusty letter opener. Or was it a paper knife? We will never know what he called it, but accounts refer to it as a letter opener. Either way, we don’t recommend doing that with it, but we do recommend giving them as gifts that will treasured for a lifetime and will make short work of junk mail, tax returns and Amazon deliveries ( as well as adding theatre to impassioned speeches about democracy, if you really feel you must).

Share this post