225 Years of Letts – The Early Years

This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of Letts. We will mark this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles and events – from the early years right up to today.

John Letts founded the business 225 years ago, in 1796, when he opened a stationery shop in the City of London. The first of our commemorative articles will look at how we invented the commercial diary and our approach to developing new products.

John Letts invented the world’s first commercial diary in 1812. It was an innovation in that it was future-focused and not designed simply to record past events. It was also a commercial product responding to the growing trade in the City of London. Moreover, the 1812 edition is interesting in that it is quite clearly testing this market. It is a single gathering of 104 pages, stitched into marbled paper wrappers. It simply prints the dates of a six-day working week from Monday to Saturday with no information other than the public holidays as they fall. The product is branded by a printed label on the front cover.

That this test was successful is demonstrated by the rapid sophistication of the product both in content and presentation, and by the early 1820’s a range of diaries providing different sizes and formats was published. They were a most effective combination of the old and new, incorporating between one set of covers the detailed information, governmental, legal, commercial and astronomical, of the long-established almanac, substituting for the plain notebook often sold in conjunction with it the printed format of the diary or bills due book.

The diary soon established itself as an essential feature of commercial life, unaffected by the slump which followed the boom years of the Napoleonic wars. It was given a further boost by the publication of the works of two major diarists – John Evelyn in 1818 and Samuel Pepys in 1825. These publications created a literary interest in diary-keeping and and no doubt stimulated demand for the new product in its more traditional role.

John Letts demonstrated a keen ability to read the market in his popular stationery shop while developing products in the back room. He located himself at the heart of things in the bustling City of London, and his early products were clearly aimed at the traders and financiers that surrounded him. He developed an effective process for testing new concepts and ideas which today is at the heart of Letts Group’s modern day incubator.

Letts Incubate may be a little more sophisticated and high-tech these days but the core principles remain the same. Indeed, we are currently testing three of our latest projects with paying customers in the live environment – just as John Letts launched his first ‘concept’ diary in 1812.

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