Scanning Around With Gene: The Dead Letterhead Department

0

Like many baby boomers, I didn’t plan as well as I should have for my future back when it was still a future, so now I find myself looking for a new career opportunity, one that won’t just pay the bills but may actually help me get ahead. So I’ve been dusting off my résumé and getting ready to send a few notes and letters to people and places I’ve considered working for.
The last time I looked for a job was in 1991, and in those dark days we didn’t have email, PDF files, personal Web sites, LinkedIn, or Plaxo. Most of my time back then was spent on developing a look for the various printed elements needed as part of a job search. There were thank-you cards, note cards, personal business cards, and most importantly, a personal letterhead. And even though I know job searches no longer start with the design of letterhead, I simply had to dig out the “good letterheads” file I’ve been keeping for a few years.

All of the letterheads shown here are scanned from the actual stationery, and if you click on them you can see a larger version.
I also ordered them by date, starting with 1940 and ending with 1969, which is just about when letterheads starting getting too trendy and over designed for my taste. If you look closely at most of these, you’ll see the dates when the letters were written.

There are lots of great letterheads out there, and plenty of books that display them — these are just the ones I physically have on hand. I don’t think you can properly evaluate a letterhead design unless there is actually a written letter on it, but I didn’t show the text here for space and privacy considerations.

Today letterheads, when they even exist, usually consist of a logo and minimal contact information. But in the old days, especially for smaller businesses, the letterhead was also a primary marketing vehicle, with descriptive text and slogans.

And while it’s understandable why, in our current global economy, most companies don’t show headquarter building or factories on their letterheads, I am most drawn to those designs that represent a company’s physical image. If that doesn’t take the form of a photo or drawing of a building, I think it should at least show a product or service.


But alas, today’s massive corporations often don’t want to be associated with any single product, industry, or even country. So letterheads are just brand extensions that mostly appear at the top of mass-marketing materials. The amount of letters containing a real signature that go into the postal system each day have to be pretty minimal compared to the decades represented here.


I’m sure designers still provide most clients with sets of letterhead, envelope, and business card designs, but the individual letter is surely no longer the primary means of business communication.


I’ve decided that, in my current career machinations, I’m going to avoid submitting things electronically whenever possible, so I still need a nice letterhead design and a few boxes of Crane stationery (phew!). If you see any favorite designs among this group, let me know. The only thing I do worse than save for the future is make design decisions!

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.
  • Pegala says:

    Gene…Loved your article and the nostalgia of the letterheads. As I was reading the article and looking at all the “stuff” jammed at the top of an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, it made me think that the letterhead has been replaced with a “home page.” My favorite letterhead is the “Display Lettering Mart”…with a drop shadow..who knew drop shadows existed before the computer!!
    I also love the fact that you saved them.

  • woswald says:

    These were such fun, and so evocative of their times. You asked for favorites and mine are Dymo and Stinson. The products are intrinsic, the design is fine.

  • kornball says:

    Headquarter buildings on letterhead– what a concept! Just about as useful these days as money in the bank: such a reliable, sturdy feeling. . .

    Having recently gone through some, uh, employment adjustments of my own recently, I can attest to the fact that letterhead — especially the personal variety — plays very little if any role in the proceedings. Even the last time I went through this (about ten years ago) I was already down to a stylized version of my initials and snail and email addresses created myself and printed on Crane paper using my own laser printer. These days the old laser doesn’t even get warmed up all that much anymore.

    Good luck with the career machinations Gene –and if in the middle of it all you can still manage to throw together as great columns as you always do, the world will simply be a better place for it.

  • gaia says:

    Gene, I always love your articles. Every one is amazing.

    I always wonder…
    Where does Gene get this stuff?
    Where does he store it?

    Terre

    GAIA GRAPHICS & ASSOCIATES
    San Luis Obispo, California
    http://www.gaiagraphics.com

  • anyisle says:

    Don’t know where you live, what you want to do, or if you will re-locate. I do know I’ll miss your contributions to CreativePro if your new direction causes such a change.
    Show me a person prepared for the future and I’ll show you a future unprepared for that person.

  • Clyde S. McConnell says:

    The “California Wine and Brandy Company” caught my eye–it’s has the color and tonal delicacy of the US stamps I collected in the fifites. I also liked the Seattle Rubber Stamp Co. design for its improbable association of a partridge with the business name–or am I missing something? And “Mitten’s Display Letters”: what can I say, except that I wish I could have met Mr. or Mrs. Mitten, or whoever the brains was behind this design.

    As always, Gene, thanks for these!

    Clyde McConnell
    University of Calgary

  • >