The short history of Letterheads

Signwriting and sign painting were the main means of street advertising up till the seventies. After that the computer-generated vinyl signs begun effectively eroding the craft. Letterheads were a counter movement against the generalized sign business that was spreading everywhere.

Wikipedia tells the story: “The Letterheads originated in Denver, Colorado USA in 1975 by a group of sign shop apprentices and sign artists; Rick Flores, John Frazier, Bob Mitchell, Mark Oatis, Mike Rielly, Earl Vehill, Mike Author, Joe Tedesco, Jim Schultz and Noel Weber. The term "Letterheads" was coined by Earl Vehill. All were unified by an interest in sign design principles and techniques which were no longer taught or valued by most of the contemporary classes, or by the shops in which they worked. Many were understudies of the Jerry Albright, and all were acquainted with sign artist Larry Albaugh, in whose studio many early meetings were held.

It was Albaugh who commonly invoked the I.O.A.F.S. acronym, which persists among longtime practitioners to this day. The early gatherings were informal, and consisted of a fair amount of partying, centered around discussions of the sign trade. Sharing, exemplified by Jerry Albright, became the strength of the group. Together with this dedication to sharing and participation was an especial focus upon books and resources, particularly sign instruction and lettering manuals dating to the early 1900s.

Throughout the 1970s, meetings were confined to Colorado but membership began to grow. Hundreds of new members joined during the early 1980s, and the movement took off from there. The group now has grown worldwide and numbers in the thousands. Meets typically last for several days, and consist of attendees participating in lettering, striping, carving, gold leafing or gilding and often glass art. Besides the incredible amount of talent and skill demonstrated during these events, it is the free exchange of knowledge and camaraderie amongst people of the same trade that makes these weekends remarkable”.

In UK the meetings begun to collect overseas visitors when Mark Curbishley organized his meeting twice in 1993 and 1994. Pete Airbrushpaint Millinchap hosted a meeting in 1995 and next year it was time to meet in Dublin Ireland by Peter McCullen. Jon Leeson hosted an international Letterheads meeting in Leicester UK 1997. The first Finnish painter, Pekka Mannermaa took part of this meeting and brought the concept to Nordic countries, creating the Stripe-O-Rama -meeting which was first held in Sweden 1997 and from 1999 on in Finland. The Letterheads-meet tradition begun to spread, to Scotland, where Stewart McLaren held the 1998 Brave Art in Stirling. Next year it was England again, with more guests from United States, Australia and many different European countries. Mike Meyer held a massive meet in his hometown Mazeppa 1999, with quests again from abroad redecorating half of the town. Terry Colley’s Brush and Bull -meet in 2000 in Southport saw some fantastic talent from States but since then the international scene in Europe somewhat dried out after 2005 Greece meeting.

Rochester UK was the home of a welcoming international get-to-gether in 2015 when Mick Pollard hosted his “What the Dickens”. The following year we were mesmerized with a major meet in, hosted by Amsterdam Signpainters. Both meetings saw a new generation coming into the signwriting scene, with very refreshing results. The older generation got a new boost and we have now seen more international participants joining the group also in Oslo Norway, Porto in Portugal, London UK, Tokyo Japan and now in Helsinki Finland. An interesting add is the font designers, who often work with a computer, but these craftsmen have no problem fitting in to the Merry Letterheads Crew. The willingness of sharing the information and having fun with fellow Letterheads is still the core of the group, and internet has raised the movement bigger than ever.

Today we see a growth of popularity in artisan handicrafts, starting from beer brewing to shoe making and hand painted signs as well. In Finland the craft on signwriting died effectively in the late seventies at the latest and today we see hand painted or artisan signs mostly in restaurants and selected historical sights. Fortunately the Kustom Kulture -movement has brought the brush painting back on the map again. Many talented pinstripers and tattooists have realized the beauty of signs and are now keenly practicing this very difficult craft. We feel that Arctic Pinheads has much to do with the popularity what signwriting is gaining in Finland now!