A complete guide to the letter opener

Stationery — a magnifying glass, paper knife, and letter on the wooden table.

In today’s fast-paced digital world, there’s a certain charm and sophistication associated with the sending and receiving of physical mail.

Opening a letter with a letter opener is an action that echoes times gone by and holds appeal to anyone who occasionally feels overwhelmed by modern life.

Let’s slice into what a letter opener is, its historical significance, and the pros and cons of its use.

What is a letter opener?

A letter opener is a tool for opening envelopes, typically manufactured from wood, metal, or plastic.

Letter openers feature a blade and handle, and the handle is often carved or decorated. Many openers are ornamental and designed to elevate the room they’re displayed in.

This tool has existed for two centuries and remains a beloved feature of many offices and studies worldwide.

Technically, letter openers differ from paper knives, as their blades are narrower and pointier.

The two had different uses in the past, with paper knives specifically used to cut and separate the pages of hand-produced books.

Over time, however, the terms ‘letter opener’ and ‘paper knife’ have come to mean the same object.

How to use a letter opener

Letter openers are incredibly simple to use. Feed the opener into the envelope through the gap at the top on either side, then gently lift the handle upwards.

The top of the envelope will separate, and the letter inside will be exposed, ready for you to pull out and read.

The history of the letter opener

Letter openers have a rich historical significance that dates back centuries.

In the early 1800s, books were printed on long reams of uncut paper. While these were bound and cut on one side, missed cuts were commonplace, so the paper knife was invented to solve the problem manually.

By the mid-1800s, a paper knife was an essential desk accessory.

The letter opener was an offshoot of the paper knife and became popular around the same time.

Their popularity boomed with the invention of flat-rate postal services in Europe and the USA. As a result of the postal service change, far more letters were being sent and received.

Antique letter openers are often engraved with the initials or name of the original owner, and letter openers owned by dominant figures of the mid to late-1800s are still being unearthed.

Letter openers of the past are highly collectable and sought-after because they’re small, attractive objects that serve a purpose.

The art of letter writing has declined in popularity with the rise of digitalisation. Still, many of our customers appreciate the written word and keep a letter opener on their writing desks.

A letter opener used in a speech for freedom

On 23 March 1775, American politician Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!” during a speech at the Second Virginia Convention.

As he made the liberty statement, he plunged an ivory letter opener towards his chest in imitation of a sword.

Historians believe the speech helped convince those in attendance — including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson —to prepare Virginia troops for war against Great Britain. It was an historic moment that proves how the humble letter opener held symbolic imagery beyond its intended use.

A letter opener used in an attempted assassination

On 20 September 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed in the chest with an ivory-handled letter opener during a book signing in Harlem, USA.

The opener entered King’s chest close to his heart and required a surgical clamp for removal. King survived the attempt on his life.

The perpetrator was found to be a paranoid schizophrenic in a severe state of insanity and was detained in a hospital for the criminally insane.

The pros and cons of the letter opener

Everything has pros and cons, so let’s weigh them up for the letter opener.

The advantages of using a letter opener

The benefits of using a letter opener are numerous.

When you use a letter opener:

  • letters are easier to open — including for those with medical conditions such as arthritis
  • you prevent paper cuts
  • you don’t damage your mail
  • your desk looks tidier with neatly-opened envelopes on it.

The disadvantages of using a letter opener

There’s only one drawback to owning and using a letter opener: it could be dangerous in the wrong hands and must be stored away from children and pets. Keep it somewhere safe and your beloved letter opener will remain purely something to enjoy.

How to choose a letter opener

A letter opener makes a beautiful gift for anyone who enjoys sending and receiving snail mail.

Choose between traditional and modern openers and simple or intricate designs. Consider which length would best suit your needs, too — will you be tearing open C5 envelopes or opening parcels?

We stock a small, hand-picked range of top-quality metal letter openers from brands like Graf von Faber-Castell.

How to sharpen a letter opener

Most letter openers won’t need to be sharpened as they’ll work perfectly even when they become blunter.

If your letter opener is particularly dull, it may be possible to sharpen it. Unfortunately, you can’t sharpen some openers — plastic ones, for example, would need to be replaced if they no longer served a purpose.

If you choose to sharpen your tool, ensure you don’t sharpen it too much — they are intended to be blunt, so you don’t cut yourself when opening mail.


Pair other desk accessories with your letter opener and create the desk setup you’ve always dreamed of.

Lucy is our lead editor and has been passionate about stationery since childhood. She has a particular fondness for rollerball and calligraphy pens and is a keen advocate of snail mail.

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