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The Mystery of the Phantom Page Turner

Have you ever seen a “page turner” for sale? New Zealand professor Ian Spellerberg collects office antiques. A few years ago, he bought a blade that was purported to be a “Victorian page turner,” which brought up an image of readers turning pages with a knife. That’s just weird, so Spellerberg did some research on page turners and ended up writing a book: Reading & Writing Accessories: A Study of Paper-Knives, Paper Folders, Letter Openers and Mythical Page Turners. As you might be able to tell from the title, he found that “page turners” do not really exist. But he found some wonderful things that did exist, namely paper knives, which were actually used to facilitate book reading.  

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.

Victorians also used letter openers and paper folders in addition to paper knives, and they are all different, although it can be hard to distinguish them in an antique store. Spellerberg shares what you need to know about these obsolete but often beautiful accessories at Collectors Weekly.

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