Whilst we tend to take printed letter heads for granted they have a much longer history than would first be expected.
The first recorded use of a stylized heading that we would recognize as a letter head was around 2500 BC in Babylonia where a clay tablet was found which had a title with an illustration of a priest and a seal containing the name of the writer and his family details… With the advent of commercial paper production in Europe by the middle ages and then the advent of mechanical printing presses and the standardization of paper sizes meant that it was possible to repeatedly print the same design Originally the paper used for communication was known as letter paper but once the printing on the heading became normal rather than unusual the stationery became known as letterheads.
The earliest example I could find of a printed letterhead is one used by Abraham Lincoln in his reelection campaign of 1860 which has a small square printed in the top left hand corner which contains an oval stylized illustration of the candidate. It is just a visual representation with no logo or message attached so serves as a silent reminder on a private letter, and the one viewed on the web was used by a farmer regarding transportation of sheep to Orleans as the efficiency of printing continued to improve the headings started to become more involved. They were generally either line drawings of the product that the company wanted to feature or flowing letters but in a style which was obviously of the times and involved much usage of scrolls and flowing typescript as a representation of the type of hand writing used in this era, with just the businesses name and details of their products. This as well as a small signet or seal was the usual letterhead for several years up until the early 1900’s when letterheads became more graphic and designs became more inventive and less ornate. When the process of using letterheads becoming more common there was a move to ensure that all company stationery was the same using identical paper weight, color, print font and color for all items being bill heads, letters compliment slips and in some cases even envelopes.
With the improvements in printing and the change in public perception of style, letterheads became more involved and started using more graphics and less writing and this closely follows or is at the same time as the proliferation of company logos. The advent of multi colored printing also gave rise to visual representations instead of descriptions.
When were they first used they were originally for mainly businesses to create a standard identity and the same heading would have been used on letters, invoices, compliment slips and cards.
As the usage of letterheads became more prevalent they were taken up by local institutions, clubs and even people who wanted to create a good visual impression for minimal costs
As we move forwards into the mid twentieth century designers became more adventurous and started using other areas of the page such as either side or even a whole page printed with a design or pattern.
Obviously with the beginning of the World Wide Web the importance of written communication became less and whilst more written communication becomes electronic the time and effort which used to be directed to stationery design has changed its direction to web page design.
So that is the history of letterheads, started in the 1800’s in America and Europe with no connection between them and have followed similar styles and have evolved to where they are today and have included some great pieces of art along the way