Steven Heller | Essays

Confessions of a Letterhead

I am a “letterhead!” It is a little like being a deadhead, only no traveling to dozens of concerts in a minibus filled with tie-dye clad stoners. Letterheads, however, do get a buzz from paper. I refer to the subset of ephemera collectors who are fanatics about the collection of printed letterhead and billhead design. The Collectors Weekly website, which catalogs all manner of ephemera, describes the addiction this way:
Letterheads suggest privileged access to the companies and people whose names are printed, and sometimes embossed, at the tops of these single sheets of paper. For businesses, they function as official, if not legally binding, documents, lending authenticity to whatever has been handwritten or typed below. For individuals, they can also be a glimpse into a person's taste, since letterheads often reflect the aesthetics of their owners. Billheads are similar to letterheads in that they make statements about the companies whose names are on these documents, but such statements are often rendered graphically in colorful vignettes of best-selling products, prosperous factories, and other indications of success.”

Letterhead collectors are not a monolithic cult. Each has his or her special needs. Some collect only corporations and institutions, other subsets are just design firms, and others are just design firms that start with the letter P. Collecting can get obsessively granular. There are collections of 19th century, political party and automotive letterheads, among others. You name it and someone collects it. There are many books on the art and design of letterheads. My favorite is Leslie Carbaga’s 1992 Letterheads: One Hundred Years of Great Design, 1850-1950. I also cherish The Avant Garde Letterhead by Elaine Lustig Cohen and Ellen Lupton (catalog of the 1996 Cooper Hewitt exhibition of Lustig’s modernist letterhead collection now in the MoMA permanent collection). Then there are dozens of richly stocked paper company sample books that contain printed examples on numerous paper weights, colors and textures. Usually these specimens are blank — many collectors prefer blank pages. But others prefer writing and signatures too. This is where the rarified field of autograph collection intersects with “letterheading.”

Letterheaders are a persistent lot. Periodically, I receive a personalized form letter (often on a blank sheet sans letterhead) requesting that I put my own letterhead in a self-addressed stamped envelope. The request often goes: “Hello, I collect corporate letterheads and would love to have one of yours for my collection.” Most often envelopes are not requested, and even more often I doubt the sender even realizes who they are sending to. In fact, I don’t even have a personal letterhead, which some collectors lust after.

So, what do I collect? Mostly vintage art modern (or deco) letterheads, like the ones here. If you think about it, there must be millions of individual letterheads in the world (perhaps more if you include the printshop off-the-shelf templated versions). Even with the advent of email — or because of it — there is increasing interest in preserving letterheads, not just for the ephemera collector but the social and cultural historian. The letterheads shown here (from a paper company in the UK) speak to the graphic style of the early 1930s and the pride that the respective businesses had in putting their respective identities forward. They are also graphic and typographic gems. Who wouldn’t want to get a letter on one of these sheets — even a threatening one.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

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