15 January 2013

A Selection of Charming Paper Knives

A few of the antique tools currently in use on my desks, top to bottom:
a 19th century continental sterling letter opener/bookmark  given to me
by my dear husband last Christmas,
a 19th century coin silver pen knife, engraved "Willie" on one side of the blade and "Mamie" on the other,
 a second coin silver pen knife chased with a rose pattern and beaded edging
and lastly, a shortened  but well-loved Clan Stuart Tartanware page turner.

I love to collect objects that are not only beautiful but useful in daily life as well. Today, I've gathered a collection of paper knives and letter openers for you. In days past, these tools were used to open envelopes and slit the uncut pages of books. While books are generally made with clean, trimmed pages these days (I for one am still happy to bind books in the old way-- I love the deckled effect of pages slit by hand after binding...), a beautiful letter opener or paper knife still has a useful place on an elegant desk. 

An early 20th century  gold-mounted jadeite paper knife, attributed to Faberge.
Because of their lovely fitted boxes, many of Faberge's objets d'art have survived
a century or more in perfect condition. 

A fabulous English sterling and tortoiseshell paper knife from Asprey. This
multi-purpose tool can be used as a page turner, paper knife, letter opener and has a perpetual calendar fitted in the handle--wonderful!

The everyday task of opening envelopes can be swiftly and satisfyingly accomplished by a number of antique desk tools intended for alternative purposes. Page turners were designed to help cultivated newspaper readers avoid ink stained fingers. But with their very long and delicate blades, they often survive in a shortened state, making them perfect for the task of opening envelopes.

A diminutive Victorian silver paper knife with a chain that would have allowed
it to be hung from a chatelaine.


Victorian mother of pearl and tortoiseshell paper knife,.
Image courtesy of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery


An early 20th century  McBeth Tartanware pen knife 

Early pen knives were used to trim quills, and are similar in design to more modern multi-purpose folding knives like the one above.  Both make excellent desk companions.

A second Russian paper knife with Faberge and Nicola Schepelew marks.
 This one features a jadeite blade, white guilloché enamelwork, 
and the Russian double-headed eagle coat of arms.
I especially love the beautiful gold swan head at the end.


And now for something completely different:  Charles Dickens' eccentric
paper knife, with an ivory blade and a handle made from his beloved cat's paw.
The blade is engraved: "C. D. In Memory of Bob 1862" the year of Bob's death.
I do hope you'll enjoy hunting for similar tools which are easily found in antiques shops, auction houses and on the internet. William Morris famously said, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." A meticulously crafted paper knife or letter opener is a joy to look at and to use, and is a perfect opportunity to put Morris' sage advice into action. 

25 comments:

  1. Dear Erika,
    May I just say how much I like your husband? That silver letter opener that he gave you is beautiful! Am I right or thinking that it shows la Fontaine's the fox and the grapes?
    The others are nice as well and I quite like the jadeite one with the double headed eagle - what a spectacular murder weapon it would make!!
    I agree with you that pages cut by hand with a paper knife are somehow nicer than machine cut. They add a very human element to a book don't you think?
    I don't have a letter opener myself but AGA does have a lovely sterling silver one of which he is proud.
    I liked this post!
    Bye for now
    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your kind words-- my lovely husband thanks you as well! That beautiful letter opener has been sitting on my desk only since Christmas, but still, I seem to be proving what the experts on the Antiques Roadshow always say: people never look closely at their things! Yes, I think the 'Fox and the Grapes' is a contender for the motif, as there are grapes hanging from the vines just out of reach of the fox's nose... However, there is also a partridge, so perhaps Rosemary could be right... I shall investigate further--what fun!

      I agree with you completely that the Russian letter opener you mentioned deserves to be the weapon in some
      sort of very dramatic spy drama involving very elegant villains....!

      Do keep an eye out in your travels for a paper knife-- I think you would really enjoy folding large sheets of fine drawing paper and using the paper knife to divide it into writing paper sized sheets... very satisfying!
      With thanks and warm regards,
      Erika



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  2. Hello Erika:
    What an absolutely wonderful visual treat to see this selection of most handsome and very decorative paper knives. We do so agree with you that it is especially good to surround oneself with items which have been lovingly collected but which do still have a definite purpose and function in today's world. We too have a number of paper knives but none, sadly, as lovely as those which you show on your desk.

    The one belonging to Charles Dickens is exceedingly odd and a thing, in our view, more of interest than of beauty. What, we wonder, would Morris have thought of it?

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    1. Dear Jane and Lance,
      Thank you for your kind words. It is indeed a pleasure to use these finely made tools everyday. I think it's so much more interesting to use something made by human hands than mass produced things--and there is certainly no shortage of wonderfully charming pieces available, just waiting to be pressed back into service. I'm sure your paper knives are beautiful--as I mentioned to Kirk, one's own things become invisible after a time, but each one has a story to tell...

      I agree with you about the Dickens piece--so creepy... I adore my cats, but can't imagine ever "honoring" them in such a way! Still, I couldn't resist including it. I have a feeling Morris would've lumped it into the category of bad-taste Victorian knick-knacks, don't you?
      Warm regards,
      Erika


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    2. Hello again, Are you and the Hattats referring to William Morris, the designer, or Morris the Cat? Either would have had mixed feelings about that letter opener.

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    3. Well spotted, Jim! I think you're right: neither of the two Morrises (Morrissae? haha) would be the target audience for this object!

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    4. We had not considered that there might be confusion over the name!! And what about the Morris of the Cowley(?) Works, but a little later in time?!! We too loved our cats but would not have thought to preserve pieces of them in such a way.

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  3. Hello Erika, A beautiful collection of paper knives and letter openers. I love the Dickens one--a Poe-esque example of the Victorian merging of sentiment and the macabre.

    The precious ones seem very appropriate for a reading accessory to unlock the pages of fine books. Although I'm sure that many were used for paper, the silver folding knives are fruit knives, made with silver blades because the acid in fruits would attack steel blades. Whenever I see one I think of its original owner rambling through his orchard with the silver knife in his pocket, stopping to cut open a particularly choice apple or peach.

    One of my own favorite letter openers is an old sterling one that I found when hiking, embedded in the muddy bank of a creek.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your message! That Dickens piece is perfectly of its time, isn't it??? Thank you for pointing out the original use for the silver knives-- you are, of course absolutely correct that they were originally intended as fruit knives for exactly the reasons you described. I love the idea of heading out for a walk in the country equipped with a beautiful silver knife in one's pocket...so romantic. The only thing better would be to find such a thing on a walk--lucky you, Jim! What a wonderful treasure! Perhaps you could tell the story of its discovery in a post sometime-- I'd love to see it.
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  4. Dear Erika,

    Well, of course I'd like to have any Fabergé letter opener that might be offered, but I'm going to be contrary and choose the tortoiseshell paper knife as my favorite. I like the perpetual calendar which I first presumed to be a code-breaking device! They're all very handsome, though I regret poor Bob's fate.

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    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your comments! I have to confess that the Asprey piece is my favorite, too. That calendar is so perfectly designed, and I imagine that as the wheels turn there is a satisfying "click"--what fun...

      I agree with you about the Dickens paper knife... I'm sure poor Bob died of natural causes, but still, making a handle out of your companion's paw is such a strange way to honor him!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  5. The paper opener from your husband is delightful. Kirk wondered whether it is Fontaine's The Fox and the Grapes. However, I am wondering whether it is from the Aesop's Fable - The Fox and the Partridge.

    A partridge had seated herself high on a perch when a fox came up to her and said, 'How beautiful you are to look at: your legs are so red! your mouth is like coral! Ah, if only you were sleeping, you would be even more lovely...' The partridge believed the fox and closed her eyes, and the fox immediately grabbed her. In a voice choked with sobs, the partridge said to the fox, 'I beg you, in the name of all your artful wiles, please say my name before you eat me up.' As the fox's mouth opened to pronounce the word 'partridge,' the partridge flew out and escaped. The fox said sadly, 'Woe is me, what need was there for me to speak?' The partridge likewise said, 'Woe is me, what reason was there for me to close my eyes, when I wasn't even sleepy?'
    For people who speak when there is no reason to do so and who go to sleep when they should be on their guard.

    I have a letter opener with a rosewood handle, and I use it for slitting the paper that I make birthday cards with. Like you I enjoy the deckled edge that it creates.
    Deckled is a new word for me, and I like it - thank you.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your message! I think you may be right about the motif: 'the Fox and the Partridge' seems like it might be the one... The moral of the story seems especially appropriate for an item that would be at hand while writing letters, doesn't it???

      Your letter opener sounds beautiful, and I like that you use it to divide large sheets of paper into smaller ones. I do the same thing with sheets of beautiful drawing paper and find it so satisfying to see the stack of lacy deckled-edged sheets that result. Deckle is a great word, isn't it? It's from the process of molding paper sheets on a screen by hand... I've never made paper, but someday, I'd love to travel to Japan and spend time with the small number of craftsmen who still make paper in the old way.
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  6. love the pearl paper life. so beautiful, its a collector item..


    megha
    http://meghafashionista.blogspot.com

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    1. Welcome, Megha and thank you for your comment.
      That mother of pearl and tortoiseshell piece is indeed beautiful. I especially love the shape of the handle--beautiful!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  7. It is difficult to see the end of the paper opener from your husband without twisting the head!!! However, having another look, I think that it is actually a pheasant. However, there is another Aesop's fable that also fits in with the Pheasant and the Fox.
    One moonlight evening as Master Fox was taking his usual stroll in the woods, he saw a number of Pheasants perched quite out of his reach on a limb of a tall old tree. The sly Fox soon found a bright patch of moonlight, where the Pheasants could see him clearly; there he raised himself up on his hind legs, and began a wild dance. First he whirled 'round and 'round like a top, then he hopped up and down, cutting all sorts of strange capers. The Pheasants stared giddily. They hardly dared blink for fear of losing him out of their sight a single instant.

    Now the Fox made as if to climb a tree, now he fell over and lay still, playing dead, and the next instant he was hopping on all fours, his back in the air, and his bushy tail shaking so that it seemed to throw out silver sparks in the moonlight.

    By this time the poor birds' heads were in a whirl. And when the Fox began his performance all over again, so dazed did they become, that they lost their hold on the limb, and fell down one by one to the Fox.

    Too much attention to danger may cause us to fall victims to it.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Wow-- another great contender for the letter opener motif! The bird's head has a crest (his head is turned over his shoulder towards the top of the photo), and he has a long tail... I think that he does look more like a pheasant, don't you? The moral here seems right for a desk tool too, doesn't it? This may be the one...But still there is the question of the grapes...

      Thank you for sharing all of your expertise and contributing to the solution of such a fun mystery! I shall appreciate this beautiful object even more now, and when I use it, I'll think of Aesop's lesson! Perhaps we could do some future posts investigating the motifs found on other antique decorative arts objects--wouldn't it be fun?
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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    2. Rosemary,
      I think you are right! I looked at the photograph carefully (with my glasses on this time), turned the computer screen 90 degrees and the result: I agree: fox and pheasant

      Erika,
      I like the idea of investigating motifs. I shall have a look around here and see what I can find!

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    3. Dear Rosemary and Kirk,
      This has been such fun... If you have any objects with mysterious ornamentation or motifs, it would be great to post them and invite a bit of community sleuthing! My email is: info@parvumopus.com if you come across a piece you'd like to share... Knowing the story behind this little piece has already made it that bit more special and fun to use-- I can't help but wonder what other interesting tales are hidden in plain sight in our homes??
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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    4. Dear Erika and Kirk - I have a post appearing soon with a motif on a silver dish that I like to have some help with. The post is entitled Cabinet of Curiosities and I will post it shortly.

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  8. A cabinet of curiosities... Sounds wonderful! I look forward to this post and to seeing your silver dish.
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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  9. Very cool blog. Interesting posts. ;)
    Nice atmosphere guests with you here on the blog. ;]
    Yours. Have a nice day. !

    Follow me on facebook fanpage and blog
    I'm very concerned about this, please. :)
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/In-another-light/413836138693856

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  10. Hello Patrycja, and welcome! I thank you for your kind words and invite you back anytime.
    Best regards,
    Erika

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  11. Hi, Erika - Wonderful examples! We used to buy more frequently in the UK, and I'd love visiting the antique fairs across the country. Among my favorite finds were the letter openers and page turners with ivory handles. Your own collection is exquisite. Thanks for sharing!
    Cheers from DC,
    Loi

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    1. Dear Loi,
      Thank you for your message! I think reading a freshly ironed newspaper using a beautiful page turner fits in perfectly with your post on Downton Abbey...Oh, where is Carson when you need him?

      I love shopping at antiques fairs as well-- especially in the UK. I have to say, my last visit to the Paris markets yielded few treasures, though...
      Warm regards from cold Michigan,
      Erika

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