The requisite bureaucratic dullness

Cartoon of Rob Muldoon tossing some pizza dough, labelled 'food prices'. His shirt has been coloured with a screentone.Detail of Minhinnick, "Food prices", 1980. Ref: C-171-061.

Whether you used it professionally or creatively or (like me) played with sheets of unwanted letters as a child, Letraset evokes the time just before computers with both analogue charm and Mad Men-esque style. Letraset products (and those of their competitors) feature throughout the collections of the National Library.

I first worked with them when describing cartoons held in the New Zealand Cartoon Archive. Cartoonists used Letratone, and other screentones, as an alternative to cross-hatching and hand-drawn patterns for several decades, before the move to digital production. While this may sound prosaic, in the right hands screentones add depth to images and character to the people depicted within.

Not to mention, Letraset is "inextricably infused with nostalgia" (BBC, 2013) for many who used it, myself included. With my interest piqued by the cartoons, I searched the collections for more examples, finding Letraset in expected - and delightfully unexpected - places.

A range of Letraset sheets with a range of letters, shapes, and tones.Sheets of Letraset letters and symbols. Photo by Hannah Benbow.

Let's talk about Letraset

Letraset is a brand name synonymous with the sheets of rub on letters used by graphic designers and anyone else who wanted their documents to look good from the early 1960s until the shift to computers in the 1980s.

After trialling a less-than-successful wet transfer process, they moved to a dry transfer system in 1961. (Eye Magazine, 2013) Letters were screenprinted onto a sheet of flexible transparent polyethylene and then overprinted with an adhesive layer. The letters were then applied to the page, adhesive side down, and rubbed to transfer.

Letraset offered an ever-growing selection of fonts, making quality typography easily accessible without the need for professional typesetters and sales of Letraset grew rapidly (Chudley, 1974).

Although notoriously fiddly to use, the product was popular with many: "Graphic designers and architects embraced it with gusto. But so did amateur bedroom publishers. Letraset became synonymous with music fanzines and school magazines" (BBC, 2013). (Fanzines are their own fascinating thing! See what the British Library says about them.)

As Warren Smith notes, Letraset also lent itself to "idiosyncratic use", such as the modification of letters to create new fonts (Smith, 2010). By 1963, Letraset was for sale in 70 countries. (Eye Magazine, 2013) Other products followed, including sheets of Letratone, transferable symbols, stock images, and a children’s game called Action Transfers.

While there were competitors, Letraset was by far the most popular. Like Thermos or Velcro, the brand name came to refer to dry-transfer products generally and we use the terms "Letraset" and "Letratone" when describing these materials at the Library.

New Zealand cartoonists

Caricature of Rob Muldoon. It makes heavy use of screentones to give the image character.Trace Hodgson, Caricature of Sir Robert Muldoon, 1981. Ref: B-128-012.

New Zealand cartoonists were enthusiastic adopters of screentones from the 1960s to the 1980s, using them to decorate soft furnishings and housewives’ dresses with delicate patterns, to pave streets and fill in landscapes, and to give politicians’ wardrobes the requisite bureaucratic dullness.

In the above image, for instance, cartoonist Trace Hodgson uses it to fill in Muldoon’s suit jacket. Screentones gave them the freedom to add more intricate patterns to their work than they could have done with just pen and ink and allowed spaces to be filled in quickly.

There are parallels with comic artists’ use of Ben-Day dots to colour and shade their work - the process made iconic by artist Roy Leichenstein.

Part of a cartoon of two people preparing for a protest. They have a lot of causes to choose from. Their clothing, room, and furniture are substantially toned.Detail of Nevile Lodge, "Which will it be this week?, 1965. Ref: B-133-314.

While screentones were popular with many of the New Zealand cartoonists, their champion was Nevile Lodge. Lodge is one of our most loved and most prolific cartoonists, with his work chronicling New Zealand politics and society in the Evening Post and other papers from the 1940s to the late 1980s.

Screentones began appearing in his work in the 1950s, before the development of Letraset and Letratone. A cartoon by Lodge from 1958, showing Minister of Finance Arnold Nordmeyer and Prime Minister Walter Nash in a balloon floating above a group of concerned taxpayers, uses screentone to decorate his briefcase.

The briefcase has been labelled "Budget" - probably in reference to his notorious Black Budget.

Cartoon showing two politicians in a hot air balloon above a crowd of sad taxpayers. The politician's briefcase is coloured with a screentone.Nevile Lodge, "Around the taxpayer in 80 ways", 1958. Ref: B-133-050.

Lodge’s cartoons tell stories as well as making statements and he was as interested in suburban landscapes as he was political ones. Screentones lent themselves easily to his evocative and detailed approach to cartooning.

He often used them to fill more of the image than was filled with ink, and he was skilled at incorporating multiple screentones seamlessly with other aspects of the image. The image with the protestors above uses Letratones LT93 and LT143 as well as two unidentified screentones. Below, a New Zealand Olympian runs along a track paved with LT183.

A sad Olympic runner is jogging his way towards Moscow, 15,000km away. Several different screentones give the scene depth.Detail of Nevile Lodge, "The loneliness of the long distance runner", 1980. Ref: A-349-071.

Looking for Letraset

I didn’t have to look very far to find Letraset outside of the Cartoon Archive. Search the National Library’s collections for "Letraset OR Letratone" and you will find a range of examples from our published and unpublished collections.

When Letraset is applied well and then photocopied to produce multiple pamphlets, posters or zines, it can be hard to tell the difference between it and other professional typesetting. This is where Letraset catalogues from the time can be helpful, allowing you to identify individual fonts and screentones.

One of my favourite examples is this folder from the collection of the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand (99-266). This set of material gives an insight into pre-computer publishing, showing items used to make pamphlets as part of the group’s various social campaigns.

Where we might use clipart and Photoshop today, the group had folders of photos, photocopies and drawings as well as Letraset and several reels of Letraline, a product used to create borders and other straight, bold lines.

Various tools used in pre-computer publication, including Letraset and Letraline.Selection of material for pre-computer publication, including Letraset. Ref: 99-266-17/2. Photo by Hannah Benbow.

Although it was used by professional graphic designers, publications with small print runs and budgets were particularly enthusiastic adopters of Letraset. Pamphlets and flyers, such as those produced by the CCANZ, often incorporated it, as did fanzines and other counter culture material like posters.

The delightfully titled 1980s science fiction fanzine, Fission Chips, is one of many in such fanzines in the collection making use of Letraset fonts for its titles and cover pages.

Letraset used to create a clean headline, alongside hand-drawn and lettered content on the rest of the page.Science Fiction fanzine Fission Chips (1980), using the Letraset font ‘Stop’.

When the Letraset ran out, the zine maker replicated the Letraset font by hand.

Letraset letters used on the cover of Fission Chips, and the type mimicked by hand later on.Detail of cover page and excerpt from Fission Chips (1980), using the Letraset font 'Pluto Outline'. Record page.

Then and now

Letraset, the company, still operates, selling a range of markers and other artists’ supplies. Its transfers, patterns and fonts endure, as well.

The Society for the Protection of Letraset Action Transfers (SPLAT) has digitised and catalogued a wide range of Letraset products and there is an active collecting market on sites like eBay and Trademe. If you have some sheets of Letraset at home and want to try it out, SPLAT offers a detailed guide on how to apply vintage Letraset.

Letraset’s designs have similar staying power, with many contemporary fonts and digital screentones taking inspiration from Letraset.

Further reading

Thanks to the follow for their help

Margaret Morris, Jenni Christoffels, and Jay Buzenburg from the Turnbull Library, Reuben Schrader from National Library, and Thais Biazioli de Oliveira from Northumbria University.

By Hannah Benbow

Hannah is the Turnbull's Research Librarian, Cartoons and Comics.

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caroline December 2nd at 9:19AM

Wonderful to be reminded of the magic of Letraset, and that there's SPLAT operating today.