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.
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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.)