225 Years of Letts – The Charles Letts Years

This year is the 225th anniversary of Letts. We are celebrating this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles (and events) – from the early years right up to today. The third article looks at the transition to the third and fourth generation of the family business – run by Charles Letts.

A miniature tortoise shell Letts diary – 1940

In the 1870’s Thomas Letts, who had now been joined in the publishing business by his son Charles, took advantage of recent changes in company law to convert the business to a limited liability company. At the same time new capital was introduced to help finance the expanding business, and non-family directors became involved.

This, and the more academic nature of Charles, led to tensions between the family and non-family directors which culminated in Charles leaving the company in 1881 to set up on his own and thus create the business which developed into the 21st century diary publishing business bearing his name.

Thus two competing brands of Letts diaries were published until 1945, when Charles Letts & Co Ltd re-acquired the copyright of the original business founded by John Letts.

Charles Letts was not as innovative as his his father or grandfather. The diary and stationery products changed little during his time.

To set up on his own was a brave step for a man of forty-two with a growing family, and the first years of developing his own business were an uphill struggle. Charles was a scholarly man, author of an excellent essay on Celebrated Diarists, and the business only developed slowly under his control. It was not until his two sons, Harry and Norman, joined him that real signs of growth and prosperity were apparent. Harry, in particular, displayed many of the characteristics of his grandfather, Thomas, and he was mainly responsible for developing the business from one publishing a few hundred thousand diaries per annum at the turn of the century to a circulation of 2.7 million at the time of his retirement in 1932.

The fluctuations in the fortunes of the business were not reflected in the product. If you compare a diary produced in the early part of the century with a similar model at its end, what is apparent is the slow pace of change, no doubt reflecting the gradual maturing of the product and a more stable and conservative society. Designs and formats developed almost imperceptibly, while the information alone became more detailed and comprehensive. Even prices remained stable, with the 1856 and 1894 editions of the same model retailing at an unchanged shilling.

One innovation which occurred in the 1860’s was the introduction of advertising in the diaries which, no doubt, allowed for a better value to be provided at the same price. It was not until the twentieth century that a certain dynamism becomes apparent in the product, reflecting underlying changes in demand which took the diary from a conventional but restricted market of a few hundred thousand to the mass consumer product of today.

In the last of our anniversary articles about the past history of the eponymous Letts diary family, we will look at the development of the Letts Diary business in the twentieth century and the gradual transition, by the Letts family, to the new, twenty first century Letts Group.


Keep up to date with the latest Letts Group news – follow us @LettsGroup.

225 Years of Letts – The Thomas Letts 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. The second article looks at the transition to the second generation of the family business – run by Thomas Letts.

The fortunes of a business tend to fluctuate with each successive generation of a family. John Letts, our founder, was succeeded by his son, Thomas Letts, the second generation of the Letts family business. Thomas took control in the 1830’s, provided a degree of enterprise and acumen less apparent in his one-time apprentice-bookbinder father.

Thomas diversified the business into maps and a wide range of stationery products and, in the 1850’s, extended the sale of diaries to overseas markets in response to the demand from Britain’s rapidly-growing Empire.

Then, in February 1858, a wonderful exchange of letters between Thomas and Dr David Livingstone, in which Thomas offers a free supply of diaries for life to the famous African explorer and missionary, marks what must have been one of the earliest examples of corporate sponsorship.

Thomas’s foresight in this gesture must have been repaid many times over in that Livingstone kept a detailed and poignant record of his travels in Letts diaries to the day of his death and thus provided one of the best examples of diary-keeping.

In the 1870’s Thomas, who had now been joined in the media business by his son Charles, took advantage of recent changes in company law to convert the business to a limited liability company. At the same time new capital was introduced to help finance the expanding business, and non-family directors became involved.

This, and the more academic nature of Charles, led to tensions between the family and non-family directors which culminated in Charles leaving the company in 1881 to set up on his own and thus create the business which developed into the 21st century diary publishing business bearing his name.

Thus two competing brands of Letts diaries were published until 1945, when Charles Letts & Co Ltd re-acquired the copyright of the original business founded by John Letts.


Keep up to date with the latest Letts Group news – follow us on twitter @LettsGroup.

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. The first article examines the founding of the original diary business by John Letts.

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.


Keep up to date with the latest Letts Group news – follow us on twitter @LettsGroup.

The History of the Letts Diary

Letts has been a name associated with diaries since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was for the year 1812 that John Letts, the founder of the present-day business, published his first diary and thereby originated a new concept of diary-keeping completely different from the traditional use as a personal historical record.

John Letts had been in business as a stationer in the City of London since 1796. His shop nestled among the arcades of the Royal Exchange and his clientele must have included the merchants and traders in the City. Their requirements were clear: they needed to know about movements of ships to and from the bustling Port of London, as well as being able to control their finances which were commonly based upon rates of exchange. That the early diaries were designed to meet these requirements is readily apparent. Prominence was given to the working week of Monday to Saturday and Sunday was often excluded. In most editions cash ruling was included throughout the diary section and information at the beginning of the diary invariably included the tide tables so essential to those connected with shipping.

While John Letts opened the first shop in 1796, the Letts family have owned a number of shops over the centuries. The newest is an online bookshop called Letts Books.

The diary which John Letts published in 1812 was an innovation in that it was future-focused and not designed simply to record past events. It was 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.

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.

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 no doubt stimulated demand for the new product in its more traditional role.

This is the first of a series of articles on the history of Letts by Anthony Letts.


Keep up to date with the latest Letts Group news – follow us on twitter @LettsGroup.

Welcome To Our New Website

We are excited to launch the Letts Group’s brand new website.

We opted for a clean, minimal look with a Buzzard soaring as the main image to support our new strapline ‘a brighter future’.

We wanted the website to look as fresh and fluid as when we first started. Even though we have been around for 250 years, for us, this is a new beginning.

The Letts Group is about tradition, quality, innovation and change.

John Letts invented the commercial diary in 1816. Today we are a branded incubator group run by the Letts family and focused on media, the environment and the arts.

We hope you can join us for the next leg of the journey.

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