Letter openers, both fanciful and promotional, have been on the “cutting edge” of society since the latter 19th Century. Sometimes called a paper cutter, paper knife or a letter knife, the basic letter opener gradually became more important as the business of letter mailing itself became more important.
Initially, a major role of the dull knife-like desk device was to slit open pages of books left uncut by printers. Gradually they became an important tool of the fashion desk set in carefully and neatly slicing open the day’s correspondence.
The letter opener was an object that lent itself to a wide variety of materials. On the expensive end of the letter opener material scale might be gold, silver or bejeweled examples.
There was also ivory, bone, tortoiseshell, brass and bronze. Ultimately, makers went right on manufacturing letter openers of aluminum, Bakelite, celluloid, plastic, lithographed tin and even basic and ever-available wood.
“Victorian letter openers were always designed to be admired as well as useful,” wrote Dan D-Imperio in the book The ABC’s of Victorian Antiques, “which accounts for ornate openers with gold or silver handles. Gems both precious and semi-precious further embellished the handles.”
Fairly elaborate letter openers were being produced in 1860s England, including those as souvenirs from Tunbridge Wells. Such pieces were delicately assembled from wooden mosaic panels into fine designs. The ultimate letter opener crafted there might have an inlaid walnut dog’s head with inset glass eyes.
As early as the 1870s in America, advertisements in Harper’s national magazine offered individual letter openers as well as those with multiple purposes. Ben’s Combination Writing and Toilet Instrument, for example, was extremely multiple. It provided a pen, penholder, ear spoon, finger cleaner, toothpick, pencil sharpener and an envelope opener.
The Damascus Blade envelope opener was advertised widely in the 1880’s as the ultimate metal blade device. It was recommended for use “in the study, the library, or on the business desk. A gift appreciated by any business man or woman.”
Price for the “beautifully decorated” opener was 25 cents. For the more generous purchase of that decade, there was the silver-mounted “paper knife” offered in London’s finer stores complete with pattern handle and ivory blade at a retail of several dollars.
During the 1890s, a number of distinguished firms, including the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, were offering fanciful letter openers for the most regal desk at home or office. Their Garland Paper Cutter, heavy with silver plate, was further embellished with an engraved blade listed at nearly $4.00.
Other letter openers were available from Pairpoint or in sets, which included a silver ink tray, top hat inkstand, ink eraser with engraved handle and a cut-glass mucilage bottle.
The equally highly noted Whiting Manufacturing Company offered a wide variety of “paper cutters” during that same decade. Most were made of the very best sterling silver and were given impressive names including Imperial Queen, Empire, Lily of the Valley, Heraldic and the Oval Twist.
By 1895, the Montgomery Ward catalog offered selections of “paper knives” and “paper cutters” to meet almost every personal taste. Choices ranged from an imitation walrus-tooth handle to pearl-handled types and numerous celluloid openers.
Some would suggest the ultimate, all-time classy letter opener might have been those fashioned by world-famous goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge at the dawn of the 20th Century. Faberge was best known for his legendary jeweled Easter eggs crafted for European royalty late in the 19th Century.
The vast majority of the early 20th Century letter openers in the marketplace were of the silver plate and sterling type.
Aside from fine materials, a number of novelty letter openers were being produced around the same period. Handles featured images of famous people from Charles Dickens and Napoleon to Captain John Smith and Abraham Lincoln.
Letter openers, perhaps because of their simple design yet practical purpose, made a major entry into the world of advertising late in the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century. For two to three decades, almost no client was too small or too large for the advertising letter opener. Advertisers from attorney’s to harness manufacturers offered them as premiums to favored customers.
Typically, the advertising messages were brief, usually no more than the company name and address. Larger firms sometimes were bold enough to add a company logo or even slogan to the letter opener.
Promotional letter openers also appeared in the major events of the 20th Century. They memorialized the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and a host of early state and world fairs. As the century wore on, the novelty effect of the marketing letter openers became steadily greater.
Combination sets further appealed to the buying customer. In 1934, despite the Great Depression, Sears and Roebuck was offering combination sets, which included letter openers. They included a bone-material letter opener and a similar bone-material bookmark. Price for the two was 23 cents.
During the 1940s, a number of companies offered a metal letter opener in the form of a military rifle complete with bayonet. From automobile manufacturers to zoos, the choices today, especially for advertising related letter openers, are almost endless.