November 20, 2013 | 13 Comments

The Box Cutter (slash) Utility Knife

From the curators: The protective handle for a single-edged razor blade, now known colloquially as a box cutter, is believed to have originated in the 1920s as a hand tool, derived from much earlier utility knives and straight razor blades. The model pictured above was first patented in the 1950s in the U.S.; a slightly different model is referred to as a Stanley Knife in the U.K., named for the company that began manufacturing them in the 1920s. This multipurpose tool continues to be redesigned and iterated upon by many companies and manufacturers. These types of blades became notorious in the early 21st century, when it was revealed that they may have been used by the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, as stated by the 9/11 Commission Report. The exact design of the alleged blades was never verified.

A box cutter is the perfect tool for our time, for thinking out of the box. We create boxes that require a blade to liberate ourselves and the other things we place in them. These self-referencing iterations of irony transform the utility knife into the clown acrobat of industrial capitalism. It punctures the fiction like a hammer smashing a nested set of Russian dolls.

The fashionable “out of the box” thinking of the late 20th century put a utility knife into all of our hands and set aside all of the carefully crafted blades we had carried for thousands of years. A traditional knife is an extension of the hand, cutting and building the materials preindustrial humans consumed as food, wore as clothing, and fashioned as shelter. The utility blade can do nothing in a world of hunters, builders, and farmers.

The utility knife is invisible and useless in this traditional world, and yet the tribal post-industrial assault on the boxes needed a sacred tool. “Out of the box” thinking required a ceremonial weapon.

Men in planes screaming about God performed this initiation ceremony of the box-cutter. On a day in September it became the post-industrial murder weapon. Cutting itself out of this final box, the utility knife slashed its way out of the 20th century, never to return.

Online packagers seem careful to use soft tape for their boxes so consumers won’t have to reach for the 21st century’s murder weapon to see the lovely things they have purchased.

In a world where shoes are bombs and shampoos can bring down jetliners, you may still find a utility knife in your own drawer, in your own kitchen. See if I’m right. I’m betting that it is no longer invisible.


Which other "invisible" everyday objects can become lethal weapons?

  1. November 22, 2013, 10:18 pm

    Wendy Brawer

    Director - Green Map System

    “The utility blade can do nothing in a world of hunters, builders, and farmers.”

    Actually, at our little organic berry farm, the utility blade is pretty useful. This summer for example, I collected urban ore from NYC’s streets, that is, discarded cardboard boxes, some of which had had a pitifully short life. Out in the field, with a bright green utility blade, I stripped off labels and tape, then slit and layered the cardboard around 250 baby black raspberry bushes. A thick layer of wood chips went on top to complete the ‘sheet mulching’ which holds in moisture and discourages weeds. Thanks to the utility blade, over time, this invisible cardboard will become part of the soil, extending its useful life infinitely.

    As I worked, I thought about the net benefit of producing this now-immortal cardboard and wondered if it helped to offset the blade’s role in damaging our civil rights and ushering in the post-privacy era.

  2. November 24, 2013, 10:29 pm

    tucker viemeister


    I thought they were “mat knives” (our problem was cutting our own fingers when we were cutting the mat board – not cutting Mat!).
    It is terrible how events can switch the “meaning” of things. Like “Book Depository”
    It used to be that everyone agreed that “health care” was good – now “health” and “good” only cause grid lock.

  3. November 25, 2013, 11:59 pm

    cameron tonkinwise

    tool < switch > weapon

    Elaine Scarry _The Body in Pain_ Harvard UP, 1985:

    “The weapon and the tool seem at moments indistinguishable, for they may each reside in a single physical object (even the clenched fist of a human hand may be either a weapon or a tool), and may be quickly transformed back and forth, now into the one, now into the other. At the same time, however, a gulf of meaning, intention, connotation and tone separates them. If one holds the two side by side in front of the mind – a hand (as weapon) and a hand (as tool), a knife (weapon) and a knife (tool), a hammer and a hammer, an ax and an ax – it is the clear that what differentiates them is not the object itself but the surface on which they fall. What we call a ‘weapon’ when it acts on a sentient surface we call a ‘tool’ when it acts on a nonsentient surface. The hand that pounds a human face is a weapon and the hand that pounds the dough for bread or clay for bowl is a tool. The knife that enters the cow or the horse is a weapon and the knife that cuts through the no longer alive meat at a dinner is a tool…

    “…If for example someone were to object that the ax that cuts through the tree (in the preceding examples) should be called a weapon rather than a tool, the person making the objection would almost certainly turn out to be one who believes that the vegetable world is sentient and capable of experiencing some form of pain; conversely, if one were to object that the knife that cuts through the cow is a tool, the person would be someone who has retracted the privileges of sentience from the animal world and thinks of cows as already-food and therefore not-quite-alive.”

    pages 173-4

  4. November 26, 2013, 12:18 am

    Kevin Ward


    Wouldn’t go anywhere but an airport without one. I use one in my work and elsewhere every two minutes or so. They are like the 2B pencil of knives.

  5. November 26, 2013, 6:32 am

    Kiersten Nash

    Founding Partner, Publics Work Collaborative

    utility /yo͞oˈtilətē/
    the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial

    useful, esp. through being able to perform several functions
    functional rather than attractive

    vi·o·lence /ˈvī(ə)ləns/
    behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something

    de·sign /dəˈzīn/
    purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object

    decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object)

    We eat, sleep, breath, fuck, fight, play, and even parish by design. To design is to affect change. It is neither inherently good, nor bad. The violence of design/designers lies in the invisibility of its/our utility. This is nothing new. The modulation of time, space, and being has revolutionized society and soma since the beginning of the Industrial era when machines began replacing nature as the conductor of circadian rhythms. As Margret Thatcher unabashedly professed, “Economics are the method…the object is to change the soul.” However, we continue to employ a multiplicity of strategies that automate our everyday toward a seamless sound track of Efficiency, Productivity, and most recently, Sustainability…thus limiting our capacity to critically confront the present and rehearse alternative futures. In other words, to think (neither inside, nor outside the proverbial box).

  6. November 27, 2013, 5:52 pm

    Jamer Hunt

    At the risk of stepping into the mire of internet conspiracies, it seems that there is no solid evidence that box cutters were used in the 9/11 hijacking Edward Jay Epstein, whose research provides the background for the Slate contention, suggests that Rumsfeld perpetuated that myth despite a lack of empirical evidence. One fact that can be drawn from this: box cutters were not on the list of FAA prohibited items before the hijacking. In other words, they were not seen as weapons.
    Whatever the case, it seems as though part of the mythology that has built up around this tool results from shock that so much carnage could come from so little weaponry. Are we ultimately baffled by the human ingenuity involved in the planning? We may be able to outwit weapons, but we cannot outwit other people who are willing to die for a cause. And that is perhaps the frightening thought that fuels the box cutter mythos.

  7. December 2, 2013, 8:15 pm

    Aidan O'Connor

    Programmer/”security researcher” Evan Booth answers your question—loud and clear!—with magazines, Axe body spray, hair dryers, dental floss, Mentos tubes, Statue of Liberty figurines…

  8. December 17, 2013, 7:13 pm

    Ken Carbone


    Yes, the term “box cutter” had new meaning after 9/11. Many things had new meaning after 9/11 including the numbers “911.” The human tragedy and massive destruction of that day, continues to impact modern life. I’m reminded of this in many ways but the “box cutter” reference comes into sharp focus every time I board an airplane.

    For decades I’ve carried the “classic” Swiss Army Knife. With its suite of six tools, it provides great utility everyday. A knife, scissors, nail file, tweezers, screw driver and tooth pick have proven to be all one needs in the urban wilderness. Just think, screw tightening and personal grooming both from one ingenious device. However, its 1 ½” blade, safe for air travel pre 9/11, is now deemed a security threat and must be stored with “checked” luggage. On several occasions I’ve forgotten to pack my knife only to have it confiscated by the TSA.

    The TSA recently considered relaxing this regulation much to my delight and certainly that of Victorinox, the Swiss company who manufactures the knife. Unfortunately, the agency dropped this motion leaving the present security policy regarding small knives intact.

    Given the world we live in, maybe it is still a good idea.

  9. December 23, 2013, 2:00 pm

    Susan Yelavich

    Visceral Cuts

    I am struck by how remote violence is from all us contributing to this site. We are either the lucky survivors expunging our guilt or we’re harboring wounds too deep to share. For an intimate sense of how violence might feel, I recommend reading Gema Santamaria’s poem here:

    The only artifact in Gema’s verse is in fact a knife, which like the box cutter, keeps violence intimate and maybe more horrifically honest at that.

  10. January 2, 2014, 12:48 am

    […] the paradigm shift that occurred after the 9/11 attacks. One case study was performed on the box cutter/utility knife, due to its role in the 9/11 plane […]

  11. September 30, 2014, 5:47 am

    […] violence. The content is series of blog-style posts on topics such as:  Five Classified Aircraft, The Box Cutter (slash) Utility Knife, Green Bullets, Concealed Carry Signage, and the Anti-Pirate Water […]

  12. August 13, 2015, 2:46 am

    […] design, Design and Violence considered devices of ruination as unintentional as a box cutter and as deliberate as an AK-47. The most startling message, even if it’s not directly stated, […]

  13. February 9, 2017, 3:07 pm


    buy levitra canada

    m Quick Cash Loan