How did Santa Fe College garner a Guinness World Record? By way of a passionate collector and generous donor named William L. Brown and his gift of 5,000 letter openers. Brown, a semiretired local businessman who has a doctorate in microbiology, donated the world’s largest collection of letter openers to the college in 2012.
Last October two professional witnesses from the Matheson Museum were videotaped as they counted the openers. It took about two hours to count the openers, which were assembled neatly on trays that crowded every surface both upstairs and downstairs at SF’s Spring Arts House. SF then received a Guinness World Records certificate attesting that the collection is “officially amazing.”
Brown is amusing and forthcoming in discussing his passion for collecting, which also extends to bronzes, medals and antique microscopes. He traveled abroad frequently for his job and wanted a type of souvenir that would be easily portable. Brown bought his first letter opener in Rome in the late 1950s and was hooked. He has since become knowledgeable about ancient postal services and additional uses for letter openers, such as slitting the as-yet uncut pages of old books. Some old letter openers contain knives.
He traveled everywhere with his wife, an antiques dealer, on her buying trips. While she did her shopping he sought additions to his collection. He bought many letter openers at stalls on England’s Portobello Road (one of the most famous street markets in the world), as well as in Moscow, Copenhagen, the Greek Islands, Australia, New Zealand, China, South America, Jordan, South Africa and the outdoor antiques fairs in Mt. Dora, Fla.
The letter openers are made of a wide variety of materials: ivory, brass, silver, bronze, celluloid, bone, aluminum, wood and copper. Many commemorate historic persons or events. An especially rare one dates from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. Some are by Franz Bergman, an early 20th century Austrian artisan famous for his work in cold painted bronze.
In spite of his donation to SF, Brown will not be left empty-handed. He still has 300-350 letter openers left and continues to collect them. “But they are getting harder and harder to find,” Brown said.
Asked why he made the donation to SF, Brown said, “It’s time to give back.” Although he became a successful businessman, Brown was born on a cotton farm in South Carolina and worked his way through college with help from his parents.
The letter opener collection is valued at about $180,000, with an additional $5,000 gift to build custom cases. Brown also gave the college a collection of bronzes worth more than $90,000.
The public is invited to a free exhibition of the letter openers from 2 – 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 21 in room 29 of the Wattenbarger Student Services Building on the Northwest Campus, 3000 NW 83rd Street, Gainesville.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 352-395-5355 (office) or 352-214-8178 (cell). The record is at www.guinnessworldrecords.com/records-2000/largest-collection-of-letter-openers. Images of the collection are available.