Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Cutting Edge: Chinese Lithographed-Tin Box Cutters

Lithographed tin has long been a favorite of collectors. People are charmed by the incredible vintage graphics found on such objects as containers, trays, lapel pins, toys, and coin banks. 

Tin was an inexpensive material, and there is often a folk art or popular-culture appeal to tin items. The material was often used in Asia, and one of its more ephemeral uses was for folding tin box cutters—those small disposable knives with a razor blade inside. 

The older examples are brightly decorated with various popular themes, such as this Roadster (note it says “Readster”) . I love the looks of this car and wish I could drive it—does anyone recognize the intended vehicle?

Most of these look like mid 20th century, and since Mighty Mouse was introduced in 1944, at least we get a terminus post quem (date after which) for the box cutter version. It is rather rusted, but finding another one would not be easy.

The Hand logo cutters give two graphics for the price of one—the hand and the small map of Taiwan. Notice that in the newer one on the left, the lifeline is longer; I guess that the Hand company found it undesirable to show a short life-line on a product that contained a razor-sharp blade.

Click to enlarge this or any other photo.
There apparently was also time for a manicure between versions, to trim those scary long nails on the older (right side) version. Incidentally, the Hand company is still in existence, although the current incarnation of the cutter has a plain stainless-steel case.

Animals were frequent mascots for these knives. Tigers have great significance in Chinese culture and are used in many company names and logos, but I think the duck and penguin were chosen more for their cuteness.

I find it interesting that every single word and letter on these is in English. I’m not sure if these were ever exported; perhaps they are an early testament to the popularity of English product names in Asia. 

Although these were very inexpensive products, each one carries a brand name, and in fact all of these examples were made by two companies. The Hand company made of course the Hand ones and also the Mandarin Duck. Sam Yu made the others, the Tiger one carrying an abbreviated SY trademark.

Why are these sharp blades decorated with cartoons? They probably were meant to appeal to children, and intended as school supplies. Even today stationery stores sell cutters with cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty on them, often in sets including rulers, erasers, etc. I can imagine the reaction in an American elementary school today if kids started carrying cartoon-razors.

Chinese lithographed tin box cutters are great fun to keep an eye out for, and you never know what design will pop up next. I’m not sure which is my favorite—perhaps the Roadster, but mostly I like them together as a group. Let me know if you have a favorite, or if you have encountered these little gems in your own collecting.

(All photos taken by the author.)


  1. Hello, Parnassus,

    I am one of those who loves lithographed tins, and your delightful and unusual collection prompts a fantasy I've always had, which is to get into a time machine and collect such items from their own time. My favorite is the last image. I like the posture, the rendering, and those red shadows.

    1. Hello Mark, I have enjoyed several of your posts that featured lithographed tin antiques, especially the coffee tin that belonged to your mother. I know what you mean about going back in time to collect; this is more about relishing the history of the objects and seeing them in their original context than picking up bargains.

      I also love the springing tiger, and how his pose is different from the placid ducks and the comic penguins. (Incidentally, the Tiger photos are of two different knives.)

  2. Hello:
    We find these absolutely fascinating, and have never, as far as we can recall, come across anything like them. Their designs appeal hugely and we can readily understand how they must now be very collectable. It is, as you mention, interesting to note the presence of English on the tins and we wonder if in the past there was an export market for such items.

    Like you, we rather favour the 'Readster'[sic].

  3. Hello Jane and Lance, I think that things English had (and still have) a status and fashion value in Asia, and were much used in product and company names, similar to the way that American and British products often bear French names. In old photographs, I frequently see English words in street signs, even in situations were there was not likely to be much of an English-speaking clientele.

  4. Hi, Parnassus - I should ask my parents to see if they recall seeing lithographed tin box cutters in China and Vietnam.

    I used to have a collection of English printed tinware containers (for tea, biscuits, candy, etc). Many in the form of fancy baskets, buildings, Chinoiserie items, faux inlaid boxes, etc. Looking back, I think many were lithographed. I have sold the collection over the years. I do get the urge to start another collection. Maybe one day....

  5. Hi Loi, Although I do have a few pieces, I don't actively collect tin, because of the space it takes (miniature tin items like these aren't too bad). I keep telling myself that the larger boxes (tin or otherwise) can be used to store other things, but somehow most of my old boxes I just keep empty.

  6. These are wonderful! The tiger! The duck! I adore these graphics. Great information. Glad you found me and I found you. I look forward to exploring your blog.

    1. Hello Jen, The animals are very attractive, and in fact I am working on a new series of Chinese animals. Thanks for your compliments; I am also looking forward to great photos and ideas as presented on your site.

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