Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Special Collections Fossickings 27: First impressions - letterheads revealed.


The Delta Iron Works - detail of  a business letter, Correspondence series, Delta Iron Works Archive, Library Archives Collection.
What we would probably regard as the traditional letterhead on business correspondence made an easy and glorious transition in the digital age to adorn 21st century websites and Facebook pages, promoting everything from small family-owned local concerns to the giant multinationals. But Jean and Alan Dartnall’s work on the Delta Ironworks archive in Special Collections, the subject of a previous Fossickings post, turned up some fine examples from the 1930s and ’40s, prompting curiosity about the origins of this means of branding and promoting business enterprises.
Exide Battery Service (Q.) PTY. LIMITED - detail of a business letter, Correspondence series, Delta Iron Works Archive, Library Archives Collection

While written communication had become an important feature of European commerce as early as the 15th century, it was another two or three hundred years before merchants and trade guilds began to develop their own ornate designs to place at the head of their correspondence. By the 19th century this had become a central business practice and from 1890 the old term “letter paper” was replaced by the more familiar “letterhead”.
Alfred Shaw (PTY) LTD - detail of a business letter, Correspondence series, Delta Iron Works Archive, Library Archives Collection.

In the 20th century images of company buildings became significant features of letterhead design, encouraging customer recognition of, for example, department stores or hotels, or making an impressive statement about the size and stability of a bank or business. Other companies incorporated into their letterheads technical drawings of their manufacturing work or more artistic illustrations of their line of business.
Paramount Hardware Store - detail of a business letter, Correspondence series, Delta Iron Works Archive, Library Archives Collection.

Examples from correspondence held in the Delta Iron Works archive display a variety of styles and subjects, with an occasional venture into colour. The company’s own letterheads of the late 1930s were apparently designed by John Sands (familiar to us for its greetings cards) which was established in Sydney nearly a century before, and had recently established a Brisbane branch. The printing blocks were made locally by the Townsville firm, Tropical Engraving.
Tropical Engraving Co. - detail of a business letter, Correspondence series, Delta Iron Works Archive, Library Archives Collection.

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