Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s

Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s

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Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s
Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s
Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s
Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s

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Exceptionally Fine ** Intricately Sculptured Ivory Paper Knife, ca 1790s **

The knife-blade with integrated handle are carved from a single piece of Ivory that displays a lovely, warm overall patina,. The blade section is polished smooth as glass, while the handle section is adorned by an Intricately sculptured oak branches, leaves and acorn motif... all crowned with a magnificently carved animal decor in the form of a stag's head.

Dating from the end 18th to beginning 19th century, this paper knife doubtlessly lay atop an impressively luxurious bureau-top in its day.

Length: 27.5 cm

Condition: Excellent, all original, consistent with this objet's age, no damage or repairs,

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About Paper Knives

Paper knives were a standard fixture on any elegant desktop during the 18th through early 19th century, and would later become the inspiration for letter openers.

By the eighteenth century, as paper had become ever-more widely available as well as populations increasingly literate, vast quantities of paper - even though still largely hand-made - were used for printing books, newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, as well as for stationary.

As printing processes improved, multiple pages could be printed simultaneously on both sides of a large single sheet. These then were folded into several ply and, once ready for binding, the outer and top edges usually were trimmed to open the folds.

Many books continued to be printed and hand-assembled in this manner, even into the 19th century; so that 18th and early 19th century readers often enough found that there were a number of folds between the pages which inadvertantly had not been separated before being bound.

Initially, pen knives were used to open these folds. But their thin, short, sharp metal blades tended to cause torn and jagged edges, while better results were obtained with a long, smooth, less sharp cutting implement... hence, the paper knife.

Thus, by the latter part of the 18th century, the paper knife had evolved into a broad, extended, relatively thick blade. Also the smoother its surface the easier it was to use without damaging the paper; so the finest paper knives were made of ivory, bone or mother-of-pearl.

Paper knives also were used for another purpose besides cutting the folded leaves in books or other reading material…

Since, until the mid-19th century, paper still largely was handmade, it also was relatively expensive, and people were loath to waste it. When one sent a note that didn’t require a full sheet, the writer usually would fold that sheet to the required size, score the crease with a paper knife and then, with that same implement, separate the paper into smaller parts along the sharp, crisp crease thus achieved… That way, the remaining slip of paper could be used on a later occasion.

On the other hand, contrary to today’s frequently held assumption, paper knives almost never were used to open letters. In fact, the price of paper oblige, in most letters the writing would cover nearly the entire paper surface, leaving only a small area blank for the address to be added once the finished letter was folded and sealed. Hence, opening the correspondence with a paper knife usually would have broken the continuity of the written text .

Nor could a paper knife be used to break the hard wax seal that firmly secured every letter in those days; paper knives were too wide and too thick to easily insert under the seal and release it from the paper… as well as too fragile for such a task. Indeed a different type of knife typically would be employed in order to break the seal: an erasing knife. These had short hard steel blades whose form was suited to this kind of operation… as well as for gently rubbing out any errors made in the course of one’s own writing.

Again, the blades of paper knives were always very smooth; but their handles often were more-or-less ornately carved and decorated., sometimes showing the highest level of artistry and craftsmanship, of which the most beautiful examples were intricately decorated with finely sculptured floral and/or animal motifs.

Although paper knives were not used to open letters, by the second part of the 19th century they had served to inspire a new desk accessory, the letter opener… and can rightfully be characterized as the grandfather of this new implement.

Time & Design

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Item Details:

  • Reference #
  • 10000151
  • Quantity
  • 1
  • Category
  • Tools
  • Department
  • Antiques
  • Year
  • ca. 1790
  • Country of Origin
  • France
  • Dimensions
  • Width: 0 inch
  • Height: 0 inch
  • Depth: 0 inch
  • Weight: 0 pound
  • Condition
  • Excellent
  • Material
  • Ivory

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