Notes on...

The lost art of letterheads

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

One of the pleasures of the letters from unhappy ministers to the Prime Minister last week (though not, presumably, for the recipient) was the assortment of letterheads from Whitehall departments we saw in the papers. One was from Nadhim Zahawi, on HM Treasury writing paper. It’s a fair bet that most of Mr Z’s communication these days is by email or text or WhatsApp. Yet when it came to calling for Boris Johnson to resign, nothing would do but a letter with the Treasury insignia to indicate that the writer was staying where he was.

There are so few opportunities nowadays to show off a letterhead that they have become a special medium. In a charity shop the other day I bought up some blank correspondence cards from a gentleman called Sir John Cecil-Williams of Hampstead Heath, simply for the pleasure of the formal type and layout. You had the title and name, so even if the sender signed himself just ‘John’, you would know who it was – useful for those with rubbish signatures. Once this was how the better-off communicated; the working classes did so by normal postcard. Given that the recipient would receive the card on the day of posting, it was fabulously efficient.

Naturally, I consulted Dear Mary on this. She observed that ‘almost all communications now are by email and so today you need a letterhead mainly because you are self-important or aware that what you have to say might need to be kept for posterity’. That’s Zahawi, then. The more expensive letterheads are embossed, so you have the sensual pleasure of running your fingers over the raised lettering. A letter or correspondence card with letterheads gives a sense of formality that has become quite thrilling. A letter from someone in parliament is good simply because it’s on paper headed ‘House of Commons’ or ‘Lords’, with a portcullis.

The other place where letterheads are still in use is gentlemen’s clubs. Left to myself in the Athenaeum the other day, I had the double treat of writing on headed paper with a wonky dip-pen and ink, which instantly raises your game when it comes to handwriting.

My mother took a dim view of that sort of thing; using someone else’s headed paper was, she thought, impersonation, though she wasn’t above it herself. Once she worked as a secretary for the Lord Chancellor’s Department and, to cut a long story short, my illegitimate father was having trouble getting proof of his birth from his natural grandfather, the postmaster in the village of Ballycanew. My mother sent him a letter using the Lord Chancellor’s writing paper asking him to co-operate sharpish, and you wouldn’t believe how quickly he did.

Mary observes that 30 years ago, you’d get your writing paper from Smythson, but today a personalised correspondence kit there starts at £195, so it really does denote status. The other problem is that young people don’t know how to write letters and address envelopes. I had to train my teenage children how to lay out the address with room for a stamp, something the nuns did for me when I was six. A lost medium, then. Tragic, really.

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