Can you remember a time before Facebook status updates, emails, e-vites, and DMs existed? Back in the day, news, messages, information, and event dates were delivered the good old fashioned way—word of mouth, mail, or on communal letter boards. You know what I’m talking about. Those black felted boards, typically framed in wood or metal, with small white serif letters that you can arrange to say anything under the sun.
They used to announce things like the date of your prom at school, the police precinct you live in, and the fact that you should seat yourself at a diner. But all of a sudden, as if overnight, they took Instagram by storm, with what feels like everyone—and their mothers—posting their thoughts, inspirational quotes, snarky quips, and even song lyrics on these guys. How did this happen? Hard to say exactly, but it’s a trend still going strong and evolving. Let’s look at a brief history of the letter board, shall we?
(Image credit: Getty Images)
The letter board started out, in many ways, as a smaller-scale marquis—utilitarian signs at places like schools, government buildings, churches, and local businesses. For a good chunk of the 20th century, letter boards were a budget communication tool for smaller, more localized establishments, yet they still had an air of uniformity or officialness because of their standardized letters and shape. Often, they’d be on a stand or hanging in a communal space for all to see. And you could find anything from business hours to pricing, event details, and menu items on them. At this point, letter boards were purely pragmatic, and not known for its aesthetic. These signs were used this way for years and still can be found in places like post offices and the occasional restaurant.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when letter boards became decorative, but they’re most certainly a social media phenomenon. All of a sudden, posts of funny sayings—or silly or sentimental ones—started popping up, and typically they’re environmental shots or flat lays, with the letter board taking center stage amongst a variety of other pretty things. I think part of their appeal lies in the fact that they’re framed, meaning they can function somewhat like artwork, either placed up against a wall, perched on a shelf, or even hung on a wall on their own or as part of a larger gallery style configuration. Their biggest advantage, over typical wall art at least, lies in their changeability. You can express yourself as much as you want—literally, because as long as you keep your letters handy, you can change things out on the regular. So from motivational to mad, and snarky to sad, your letter board content is yours to decide, over and over again. That’s a good ROI, especially for serial decorators or social media influencer types that need an endless stream of content.
And so, letter boards started showing up on Instagram feeds in tastemakers’ (and regular people alike’s) kitchens, on their desks, in their laundry rooms (because anything to make that household task more fun)—really everywhere. People started wearing their hearts and humor on their letter boards.
Even celebs have gotten in on the game, including Joanna Gaines. Once the “Fixer Upper” star hops on a trend, it’s pretty much official.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time the letter board was reborn. That said, a lot of what you see out there now was started by the brand Letterfolk, the brainchild of Johnny and Joanna Galbraith, a husband-wife duo that were definitely there at the ground level of Letter Boards 2.0.
When they launched back in June of 2015, their mission was simple—to find a unique way to do their second daughter’s monthly milestone baby photos. Using vintage letter boards as inspiration, they created a prototype and basically reinvented the letter board for the digital era, though they might not have known it at the time and probably had no idea they’d be one of the first brands to really kick off this trend of sharing memories, ideas, thoughts, and milestones in this way.
Of course, the letter board and baby announcement and/or milestone idea took off. You know you see at least a few in your feed a day still. Probably because it’s such a sweet tie between past and present, and you know, much like those small businesses of yesteryears, a letter board makes you look more legit, I think. Or at least like someone who cares to make their photos look professional. I bet people are even registering for them these days, but I digress. Point is, somehow announcements of births on letter boards turned into wedding, new job, new address postings and all other kinds of other news bites, big and small.
Then came the quotes and quips, from motivational to passive-aggressive, and a little bit of everything in between. Lately, white, gray, and colored letter boards have been the latest evolution of this trend.
Different-sized letters and simple emoji icons being included in letter board packages is also happening, which is an interesting, super modern juxtaposition on something with such old school roots.