The Mystery of the Phantom Page Turner

March 24th, 2016

PaperKnives

A few months back, we received an email from a gentleman named Ian Spellerberg, who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. “Lovely article about letter openers,” he wrote. “However, what is illustrated is a mix of letter openers and paper-knives. They are quite different.”

“Paper-knives are dull by design.”

In fact, letter openers and paper-knives represent only half of Spellerberg’s expertise on this arcane corner of old office supplies. As the author of Reading & Writing Accessories: A Study of Paper-Knives, Paper Folders, Letter Openers and Mythical Page Turners, now available in the United States from Oak Knoll Press, Spellerberg has become an important new authority on implements designed to do controlled damage to paper. In the process, he’s turned what most people thought they knew about these objects, particularly about page turners, on its head.

Spellerberg didn’t set out to be a firebrand of the collectibles world, but as a professor of nature conservation at Lincoln University in Christchurch for 20 years and the Director of Environmental Sciences at Southampton University in England before that, his scientific side frequently takes over, even when it comes to something as ostensibly uncomplicated as a fondness for office antiques.

Top: An assortment of wooden paper-knives from Spellerberg's collection. From top to bottom, bamboo knife with a ruler; a curved (sickle shape) Mauchline ware paper-knife with poker and transfer work; an olive wood paper-knife inscribed "The Mount of Olives" in Hebrew; a walnut paper-knife hallmarked 1881 and featuring a wooden soldier’s head carved from a palm nut. Above: Letter openers are often made from precious materials. From top to bottom, a greenstone and silver opener from 1903; an Art Nouveau ivory opener with enameled silver; and a letter opener featuring a sterling silver handle.

Top: An assortment of wooden paper-knives from Spellerberg’s collection. From top to bottom, bamboo knife with a ruler; a sickle-shaped Mauchline-ware paper-knife with poker and transfer work; an olive wood paper-knife inscribed “The Mount of Olives” in Hebrew; a walnut paper-knife hallmarked 1881 and featuring a wooden soldier’s head carved from a palm nut. Above: Letter openers are often made from precious materials. From top to bottom, a greenstone and silver opener from 1903; an Art Nouveau ivory opener with enameled silver; and a letter opener featuring a sterling silver handle.

It all started with a visit several years ago to London’s Portobello Road, known internationally for its enormous concentration of antiques shops and stalls. “Among the many treasures on offer,” Spellerberg writes in the Preface to Reading & Writing Accessories, “were some odd-looking hand-held ‘blades.’ They were between 11 and 14 inches long. The blades (although not sharp) were made of various materials, including tortoiseshell, ivory, and brass. I was told that they were ‘Victorian page turners’ for turning the pages of books, magazines, or newspapers.” On that day, Spellerberg purchased what was advertised as a tortoiseshell page turner with a silver handle, although, he writes, “it should in fact be called ‘turtle shell’ because the material comes from the carapace of the marine hawksbill turtle (not a land-based tortoise).”

Given Spellerberg’s natural-sciences background, that error was easy for him to catch, but the object’s misidentification as “tortoiseshell” was not its chief falsehood. “I had never heard of page turners before,” Spellerberg told me when we Skyped recently. “The thought of using a hand-held blade for turning pages seemed rather romantic.”

Impossibly so, as it turns out: After researching the topic for several years, Spellerberg concluded that page turners simply did not exist during the Victorian Era. In fact, according to Spellerberg, page turners didn’t exist during any historical period at all, making them the unicorns, if you will, of office collectibles, mythical objects that tell us more about how we imagine people lived rather than how they actually did.

In 1907, when this page from store catalog was printed, paper-knives were still being sold. The paper-knives at lower-left are similar to the one Spellerberg purchased on Portobello Road.

In 1907, when this catalog page was printed, paper-knives were still being sold. The paper-knives at lower-left are similar to the one Spellerberg purchased on Portobello Road.

“I wanted to find out more about this page turner I had just bought,” Spellerberg continues, “but when I started delving into old newspapers, trade catalogs, and even English literature for references to them, I couldn’t find a thing. That led to correspondences with lots of very helpful people at libraries and museums around the world. Still, I came up with no historical references to page turners.”

It wasn’t that he couldn’t find anything about page turners by searching for keywords like “antique page turners” at Google. Doing that today will still yield numerous page-turner pages at eBay, Etsy, Pinterest, and other sites, all of which are fairly brimming with objects that Spellerberg is convinced served an entirely different purpose. “If you see these things on the Internet and they’re described as page turners, often by some of the most reputable auction companies in the world, you assume they’re page turners,” he says. Obviously the objects themselves are real enough, and many are definitely old, but page turners, Spellerberg says, they are not.

It didn’t take long for Spellerberg to figure out that what he had really purchased that day on Portobello Road was a paper-knife, whose thin, wide blade and dull edges were designed to follow the creases of a book’s uncut pages and expertly, gently, tear them apart.

Souvenir paper-knives from Egypt made (from top to bottom) of bone, plastic, brass, and ivory.

Souvenir paper-knives from Egypt made (from top to bottom) of bone, plastic, brass, and ivory.

Uncut pages were common to Victorian Era and earlier books, artifacts of the bookbinding practices of the day. As Spellerberg explains in Reading & Writing Accessories, long sheets of paper were folded numerous times to form a “signature” of pages or “leaves,” which would be printed on both sides. Signatures would be printed, collated, and then bound (which usually meant “sewn”) to create a book. “Most of the leaves were cut during the binding process,” he writes. “However, since all books were bound by hand at that time, leaves were sometimes left uncut and could not be opened unless they were cut.” Paper-knives made such books readable.

It wasn’t just books that required paper-knives to be read, which is why the tools came in all sizes. There were long ones for newspapers and magazines, as well as shorter ones for diminutive books made to fit in the palm of the hand. Regardless of their size, some were painted in handsome designs while others were carved and fitted with sterling-silver handles, transforming these prosaic implements of paper destruction into small works of art. And, of course, a great many paper-knives were treated as handheld advertisements, sold at tourist destinations as souvenirs or given away by companies wishing to extend their brands, as we might put it today.

Page turners, then, were actually paper-knives, and paper-knives were the tools readers employed to get at the content inside an “unopened” book. Which sort of brings us back to letter openers. Wouldn’t letter openers have worked just as well to sever the uncut pages of books as paper-knives, and vice versa?

An ivory paper-knife with an otter’s foot for the handle.

An ivory paper-knife with an otter’s foot for the handle.

As a matter of fact, they did not. “When people ask me, ‘What do you collect?’ and I say, ‘Well, I’ve got a few hundred paper-knives,’ they’ll say, ‘My grandmother used one of those and to open her letters.’ So it’s a common belief that paper-knives and letter openers are the same thing. I’m not the first person, by the way, to argue that they’re different, but my book is the first time the differences have been described based on primary evidence.”

Some of that evidence takes the form of how letter openers—which are usually dagger shaped to allow their points to get into the unsealed corners of an envelope—and paper-knives—which tend to be rounded and blunt—were marketed. But Spellerberg also did his own empirical research to determine if an accessory that looked like it could be a paper-knife was really a letter opener, or the other way around. Not surprisingly, one of the trickiest shapes to test was the scimitar, which has both the point of a letter opener and the wide blade that’s required to make a smooth cut with a paper-knife.

“That was a puzzle,” Spellerberg admits of initial confusion over scimitars. “I mean, there they are in the catalogs, described as paper-knives, but I hesitated about them for quite a long time. So I experimented. I’d take a piece of paper, fold it, crease it, and then see how scimitar-shaped tools worked as paper-knives. Naturally I tried them out on old envelopes, too. They didn’t work very well on envelopes, so eventually I became convinced they really were intended to be paper-knives.”

Mauchline ware paper-knives. From top: a cricket-bat design; tartan ware; fern ware; and a combination paper-knife and book marker.

Mauchline-ware paper-knives. From top to bottom, a cricket-bat design, tartan and fern variations, and a combination paper-knife and book marker.

The key difference, though, between paper-knives and letter openers is the relative sharpness of the blade. Most letter openers are sharper than paper-knives—when one is facing a pile of envelopes to open, speed rather than accuracy is the primary goal. In contrast, paper-knives are dull by design. “You never want to cut the unopened pages of a book with a sharp knife,” Spellerberg says, “because a sharp knife will veer off the crease. It doesn’t need the crease to cut through the paper, so you can do a lot of damage to a book. Paper-knives are not sharp, but they do come to a clean, thin edge. That’s an essential aspect of their design.”

At the height of the paper-knife era, or so Spellerberg likes to unscientifically surmise, people found great pleasure in sitting down in their favorite chair with a new book in one hand and their best paper-knife in the other to cut open the pages and begin to read. “People loved their books,” he says. “They took pride in their libraries and in being well-read. The preparation prior to reading was a part of that.”

By the end of the 19th century, though, most publishers had equipment that trimmed the uncut pages of their products, obviating the need for paper-knives and the ritual of opening the uncut leaves of a new book. And today, of course, a reader doesn’t even need a book, let alone a specialized tool to make it ready for reading. “I hate the idea of that,” Spellerberg says. “I don’t have one of these Kindle things. I love going to a bookshop and picking up a book, to feel its weight, to take in the smell of its paper and ink, to physically turn its pages. Sometimes I worry that the sensory side of our lives is dying out.”

Paper folders or "creasers," as they were also known, were used to fold letters for envelopes, which is why they are often decorated with postal information. Unlike paper-knives and letter openers, paper folders were held along their top horizontal edges, so they needed to be wide but did not require handles.

Paper folders or “creasers,” as they were also known, were used to fold letters for insertion into envelopes, which is why they were often decorated with postal information. Unlike paper-knives and letter openers, paper folders were held along their top horizontal edges, so they needed to be wide but did not require handles.

Dying out, sure, but not dead yet, as I learned from Matthew Haley of Bonhams, who has spoken to Collectors Weekly before about rare books. “I was once told, but have never confirmed, that people still occasionally request books that have never been opened at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford,” Haley says. “They are lent a paper-knife for the purposes of cutting the pages.” In fact, as Rosie Burke of the Bodelian told me via email, “I’m pleased to confirm that it is true that after all these years we still have many books with uncut pages—either completely uncut or only partially cut. Staff will issue paper-knives to readers for certain books, but anything that is particularly old or fragile will only be cut by either reading-room staff or a member of our conservation team.”

This is obviously good news for readers—as a library, the Bodelian is in the business of spreading knowledge rather than keeping it secreted within the uncut pages of the books on its shelves. But the utility of paper-knives raises an interesting dilemma for book collectors. Is a book with uncut pages more valuable than a comparable volume whose leaves have been sundered, however carefully, by a paper-knife?

“Generally speaking,” Haley says, “there is a slight premium placed by collectors on uncut or ‘unopened’ copies, as they are closer to how the book would have been originally supplied by the bookseller. It’s one of the fascinating ironies of book collecting,” he adds, “that an unreadable book could be worth more than one that’s ready to read.”

A paper-knife inserted between the uncut leaves of an 1882 book titled The History of Indian Literature. Each signature has 16 leaves requiring four cuts. The paper-knife is from Sri Lanka and is made from palm wood, with bone and horn decoration.

A paper-knife inserted between the uncut leaves of an 1882 book titled The History of Indian Literature. Each signature has 16 leaves requiring four cuts. The paper-knife is from Sri Lanka and is made from palm wood, with bone and horn decoration.

6 comments so far

  1. Adrian Says:

    Very interesting – I know some bookbinders but have never really thought about older uncut signatures and the need for paper knives like this. The paper knives that I’m more familiar have exceedingly sharp, flat blades and are used for cutting sheets of paper while making books.

    Oh, and “South Hampton” (in the third paragraph) should probably be Southampton. Thanks for the catch! -Eds.

  2. Rob N. Says:

    Great information. It seems that I have some paper knives along with letter openers.

  3. Joan Hix Says:

    Interesting article Ben!

  4. Daniel Kim Says:

    From the way that signatures were folded after printing, it would seem that a printing press would have to arrange four pages of text in opposite directions, and in non-serial order to print a single side of a four-page sheet, and again for the other side of the sheet. Was there some printers’ lore associated with arranging a page of set type, to keep this straight?

  5. Daniel Kim Says:

    I imagine that there were different arrangements used for papers folded in folio, quarto, etc. Were different sizes of paper knives employed for books with signatures made from more highly folded sheets?

  6. Phil Marsden Says:

    A flat sheet is “imposed” in the correct order so that after folding (creating a signature), the pages read correctly. Most books printed today are in 16 page signatures. Signatures are then stacked, or collated, to create the text of a book, trimmed on three sides, and case bound.
    Obviously, modern machinery has done away with the need for a paper knife!


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