Paper Knives

The celluloid paper knife below  is a late 19th or early 20th century and  issued as advertising from the A.N. Kellogg Newspaper Company.  I’m confused about distinctions between paper knives, letter openers, page turners and even bone folders.  Neither Etherington or Glaister define their differences, and a few quick internet searches seem to lead to antique dealers selling Victorian versions.  So here is my first attempt at a definition: a paper knife is a large, special purpose type of bone folder, usually with a distinct handle and sharp blade.  It is often made from wood, bone, ivory or celluloid.  It is shaped to allow the user to rapidly slit paper folds.

The marking on the blade  reads “Proprietors of Kellogg’s lists established 1865″.  Kellogg’s list was a compilation of  ” Family weekly newpapers of a better class”  with price lists for advertising.  The proprietors seem quite savvy with marketing- note the book Google  scanned was donated by the publishers to Harvard College Library in 1897.  The surface of the celluloid contains a grain like structure, presumably in order to resemble bone or horn.  When a new material is introduced, it often contains superficial decoration to make it appear more like the original material, this is called a skeuomorph.  Book structures contain many examples of these as well– artificially grained leather, stuck on endbands, fake raised bands, etc….

 

paper-knife

 

pear-paper-knife

I didn’t want to damage the original, so I made a reasonably accurate reproduction out of Swiss pearwood.  When testing the knife, one feature immediately became apparent due to the gentle curve.  It is possible to use the knife to slit a fold moving towards the left, as illustrated below, or moving it forward with the top edge of the knife. It is not so comfortable for folding, if you are holding the handle, since it is so long and the edges are quite sharp, which also supports my hypothesis that this is a single purpose professional knife, and not a general purpose folder. Whoever used it must have had pre-folded sheets. Given the overall length of 12″, I wondered if it was intended as an in house distribution for the various press rooms that were part of the Kellogg empire.  I am unclear why the end of the handle is so pointed– it seems potentially dangerous– did it have some special purpose, or was it supposed to resemble the end of an horn?  In the original, the handle is chipped at the very tip, possibly it was used to open packages?

Paper knives must have been fairly popular, an introductory text for woodworking has making one as a project, although it looks rather crude and slightly dangerous, with the sharp angles.

10-paper-knife-119

              Schwartz, Everett. Sloyd Educational Trainning Manual . N.P.:Educational Publishing Company, 1893.

The rounded handle on this model seemed more comfortable than the one I made, but there are similarities in the shape of the curve and overall length and width.  If I am recalling my mechanical drawing class from High School correctly, it seems the sharp edge of the knife is only on the top of the drawing, which suggests it would be used by pushing forward. The text, in six succinct sentences, describes the fabrication of this knife.  I’m always impressed by the level of common sense that is presumed in 19th C. and earlier manuals, and by the familiarity with the full range of woodworking tools, from  axe to scraper. Contrast this with a current Utube video tutorial which demonstrates how to apply beeswax to linen thread!

“Have the pupil cut from a 1-2” board a piece 2″ x 11″. With the use of axe, plane, tenon-saw and knife prepare an oblong 9-32″ x 1 9-16″ x 9 1-8″. Place drawing upon one of the sides and with the use of tenon and turning-saws cut to within 1-16″ of the line. Cut with the knife and file up to lines. Round and sharpen edges according to drawing. Finish with file, scraper and sand-paper.” (Schwartz, Project 10)

The coolest paper knife I have found is this patented combo paper knife (C), shears, eraser (D), paper folder (E) and seal (F).  This is supposed to combine all the tools a librarian or clerk normally uses into one, convenient package.  Today, we would likely call the “eraser” a scraper.  I can’t see how the paper folder could be used without grasping the sharp edge of “C”, though the patent says all the functions can be used without interfering with the each other.

scissors

 

A close second is the combined paper knife (c), ink-eraser (a), rubber or pencil eraser (b), twine cutter (D), ruler (C), envelope opener (G), pen-knife (B), newspaper-wrapper opener (H) and hang hole (I). The patent notes the handle (C) can be made of ivory, bone, metal, wood or any other suitable material.

opener

 

Any images of other paper knives, or information on how they were used, or images of them in use would be greatly appreciated.

A Knife From The Hood

birck-ft

birck

At first, I thought the above knife was a German style paring knife, but now I’m not so sure. German knives are almost always somewhat flexiable, and this one is very rigid.   Notice the small recess on the handle, near the blade, perhaps worn by fingers gripping the handle over the decades.  Even a light surface cleaning could destroy not only important use evidence, but the overall beauty of the knife.  As I have said before, the over-cleaning and “restoration” of  hand tools is perhaps the most significant ongoing loss of cultural property  that commonly occurs.   The blade is full tang and has a gradual taper in thickness towards the cutting edge. Judging from the scratch patterns in the top picture, the owner must have had a stressful encounter with his grinding wheel!  But I find these marks interesting evidence of the history of the tool, as well as a visually refreshing antidote to the ubiquitous monotony of the highly regulated machine grind marks found on new tools.  The handle is an unidentified light colored wood that has been stained and is still firmly attached to the tang. The edges of the handle is still quite sharp, and the various ways I have tried to hold it all are somewhat uncomfortable.

Matt Murphy  found some information about Fred J. Birck:  “From 1903-04 he worked at 93 Essex St. In 1905-06, Fred. J. Birck is listed as being a part of Birck & Zamminer Cutlery, which is located at 154 Essex St.  In 1908-1912, Birck is listed at two seperate addresses, 132 Essex St. and 17 Cooper Sq. East. In 1912-1913, the primary address is changed to 17 Cooper Sq. E.  In 1913-1914, the partnership must have been dissolved, because only Birck is listed, and the only address is 17 Cooper Sq. E. until 1925.  Also, Mr. Birck made his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, as his address is often listed as 144 Hutton St. (Which still stands to this day.)”

So the knife is possibly from 1913-25.  Aside from the beautiful, insanely deep makers mark, I was attracted to the fact that another knife-maker worked in the East Village of NYC, only about 5 blocks from where my studio is now. There is even an old bar,  McSorley’s, established in 1854, still operating right around the corner from Birck’s 17 Cooper Sq. address. Perhaps Birck had a drink there.  I’ll raise a glass to him next time I’m there.

 

Don Rash posted a similar looking knife on his blog, unfortunately no makers mark.  I looked through Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-working Tools c. 1700-1950 and couldn’t find any similar knives, and Salaman covers some pretty obscure leather-working trades ( ie. gut string maker, hydraulic pump-leather maker) but tends contain more English rather than American references.

 

Below is the German knife from Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding, 6th Ed. 1903. It almost looks like the knife is shaded more heavily on the top edge, to make clear the blade tapers toward the other edge?

german-paring-knife

An Appreciation

 

 

The Union Square Greenmarket, NYC,  was strangely quiet on Saturday, especially in the Northwest corner.  A familiar voice was missing, along with tubs of peeled vegetables. Joe Ades, salesman of the Star Swiss vegetable peeler died on Sunday, Feb. 1 at the age of 75.  A unique, eccentric and charismatic human is gone.

At least once a week, I would often pause and watch him, usually in the company of a crowd.   He was an anachronism, a 19th C. peddler existing in the 21st C.   He never had a license to sell goods on the street, and only once did I see the police ask him to move along.  Perhaps they saw in him what I saw;  a professional barker, a fantastic salesman, a gifted street performer and a craftsman with exemplarily hand skills.

In less time than it took to explain the virtues of his peeler–he was the sole importer from Switzerland,  it could make potato chips, it could function as a mandoline, it made three sided french fries that absorbed less oil than four sided ones, it had blades made of surgical steel–he could cross section an entire carrot, holding both the carrott and peeler freehanded.  Try it sometime, it’s not easy.

The New York Times published an obituary on Feb. 2.  Strange that it was published in the N.Y./ Region section, and not with the other obituaries.  Quite possibly Joe was very rich and lived in a fancy apartment.  The article reports he stored his peelers in the maid’s room, frequented pricey Upper East-side restaurants and wore expensive suits. However, he loved hawking on the street, and I would see him out on the coldest days.  I had always thought he was homeless, or close to it. An enigmatic man he was.

One of the functions of a green market is to reintroduce the relationship between producer-food-consumer.

Joe Ades reintroduced the relationship between vendor-tool-user.  

Joe’s patter lives on in my head each time I use his peeler. 

 

joes-peeler