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Memohead of the George C. Mansfield Company (WHI Image ID 87678)
Memohead of the George C. Mansfield Company WHI 87678

Letterheads: Promotions on Paper, 1850s-1975

Email and texting have superseded not just letter writing but physical stationery itself. For most of the last two centuries, custom-designed letterheads were a universal way of proclaiming who you were. Historical letterheads are prime examples of early branding, as well as specimens of commercial typography and its allied printing arts. Because they're so evocative of a specific time and place, they fascinate anyone interested in advertising, local history or graphic design. This gallery features more than 300 images spanning more than a century of design, from two archival collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Conscious Designs and Unconscious Messages

Letterhead of the E.R. Godfrey & Sons Company of Milwaukee (WHI Image ID 91093)
Letterhead of the E.R. Godfrey
& Sons Company of Milwaukee
The earliest letterheads range from spare designs of a building against a dark backdrop to elaborate and ornate typographical designs that employ several competing fonts. Victorian-era letterheads often incorporated printers' ornaments.

Letterheads that relied on typography alone sometimes mimicked currency or official certificates in order to convey a sense of authority. Pictorial letterheads often included a view of the company's building, especially if it was well-known in its community.

In many cases, letterhead designs represent one of the few surviving records of a building's appearance or how it was situated in its streetscape. Some companies emphasized the success of their operations by showing factories churning out smoke and bustling with activity, or with docks full of workers loading and unloading crates of products.

Others chose to lend a sense of locality to their paper communications by using its place name, such as the Beaver Dam Canning Company or with Indian nations that were associated with the vicinity.

Pride in Craftsmanship and Products

Many companies used letterhead to express pride in their craftsmanship or high-quality products. Other letterheads pictured enticing treats, colorful displays of seasonal merchandise or the company's main product.

Many designs stretched down the page as imaginative borders. Some included illustrations along the side of the page or along both sides and the bottom. Others projected a background image underneath the entire page.

Changes in visual taste are reflected in the evolution of letterheads. The sinuous lines and gold accents of the Wisconsin Demokrat suggest Art Nouveau, while the clean black lettering and jadeite green coloring of the Oconomowoc Canning Company evoke a late Art Deco influence.

Reflecting Social Trends

Company stationery also reflected social trends. Automobile companies in the 1920s and 1930s emphasized freedom and mobility, often featuring women in their letterheads. A Mid-Century Modern sensibility seems to have influenced the letterhead of the Eau Claire Transportation Company, which used "space-age" shape and mix of lettering styles. 1960s letterhead sometimes emphasized innovation or extraordinary qualities such as a product's size.

Documenting the Letterhead

Letterhead of the Belle City Incubator Company of Racine (WHI Image ID 87758)
Letterhead of the Belle City
Incubator Company of Racine
As a targeted form of advertising, letterheads could help shape the public's impression of a company's strengths or the nature of its brands. They could convey in visual terms what was most important about a company, whether that was the sprawling expanse of its physical plant or the style and creativity on display in its choice of typefaces. These graphic devices were often repeated on billheads (invoices and statements), noteheads and memoheads (for shorter communications).

Some printers offered stock images for inclusion in a letterhead, while others customized their work to a specific business. Although some Wisconsin companies occasionally used out-of-state printers for their letterheads, they often used Wisconsin printers such as Gugler Lithographic Company, J. Knauber & Company Lithographing, and Milwaukee Lithographing and Engraving Company. It is not always clear to whom credit should be attributed for the various parts (illustration, typography, general layout) of a given letterhead. The date of a particular design is also often uncertain, since stationery might be printed well in advance of when a particular sheet was used. Approximate decade ranges have been assigned to records of individual images, rather than the date on the document for this reason.

To Learn More

Both the Letterhead Collection and the Ephemera Collection have detailed lists of their contents. Both consist of documents which were separated from other collections and retained primarily for their visual value. The Letterhead Collection consists of two small boxes with hundreds of letterheads. The Ephemera Collection includes many other paper items, such as tickets or menus, and fills about 29 boxes.

To learn more about the history of letterheads and to view more examples, see "The Letterhead: History and Progress" (New York: Museum Books, 1955) by Ernst Lehner, or "Letterheads: One Hundred Years of Great Design, 1850 to 1950" (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992) by Leslie Cabarga.

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