The age of letter writing is long gone, and in most of the cases in which you are exposed to a printed letterhead it is a bill, fine, or other bureaucratic bugbear.
But The Public Record Office of Victoria’s (PROV) research journal, Provenance, is here to change your attitude. It is analysing the City of Melbourne’s letter archive, and presenting letters from the past 100 years.
Paper Ambassadors: letterheads and the iconography of urban modernity, is one of four of the journal’s latest articles, charting Melbourne’s initial Victorian excess and the rise of modernist minimalism by the early ’60s.
“A lot of other cities have thrown out these sorts of records, whereas the City of Melbourne has kept them, and that’s left us with a body of material that’s virtually unparalleled,” says co-writer of the article, Andrew May.
The letters examined span public and private correspondence, including French industry and American aviation companies all vying for the hands of successive Lord Mayors.
“Melbourne was one of the great cities of the British Empire. It exemplified a lot of the progress of the 19th century, and it was very well connected to other localities,” May says.
In an age when we’re most likely to take our visual literacy for granted, the letterheads forged a new avenue for visual communication within the Victorian era.
“The visual cues that people had, in terms of symbolism in a pre-literate era, came from stained-glassed windows. So the letterhead is this funny transitional moment alongside the rise of print culture, but it soon becomes anachronistic when we get mass media circulation,” he said.
The visual symbolism of today, such as advertising, packaging, logos, and corporate brands all stem from the humble letterhead – all designed to hinge on brand perception.
A letterhead sent to the Lord Mayor from the Chicago-based aviation firm, Mills Aviators, boasted of the future, both literally and figuratively.
From 1912, its letterhead featured a plane similar in style to those of the Wright brothers’, and just in case the mayor didn’t quite get it, the first line read:
“We are in the Aviation Business, as this letter-head testifies”.
Looking through the digitised archive, you get a sense of what Melbourne was – a grand Victorian city stuck in an existential crisis.
On the one hand the letterheads spoke the language of the city’s colonial forebears – early municipal councils and other public bodies used the spectre of vice-regal iconography to establish authority.
On the other, Melbourne’s step away from its Victorian glory days, were reflected in letterheads that spoke in a global language, not representing a local aesthetic.
But, while some might assume that the passage of time means progress, the letterheads also showed that Melbourne wasn’t without its moral blind spots, even toward the end of the 20th century.
A design for the Moomba Festival of 1973 featured a black-faced figure with bold red colours encircling the face – this was later changed to a white one by the 1980s.
Where once there would’ve been thousands of copies of these letterheads, Paper Ambassadors re-contextualises an archive that tells of Melbourne’s contribution to global conversations.
You can access the full letterhead archive for free at the Public Record Office of Victoria. The 2015 issue of Provenance is currently looking for submissions.