225 Years of Letts – The 20th Century: The Leslie Letts and Anthony 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 fourth article looks at the transition to the fifth and sixth generation of the family business – run by Leslie and Anthony Letts.

It was not until the 20th century that a certain dynamism becomes apparent in the diary products, 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. This rapid growth in demand, no doubt partly stimulated by Letts, was matched by a growth in the business which developed from a small family partnership at the run of the 1900’s to the worlds leading diary publishing business later in the century employing nearly 700 people and producing around 20 million diaries a year. The only aspect that had not changed was the family link, with the fifth and sixth generation in control.

Anthony Letts, the 6th generation of the diary family

The main spur of growth came as a result of the development of the pocket diary, which, being an article of personal attire rather than a desk-bound product, responded more quickly to changes in taste. The first development could be seen in the 1890’s, when thumb-size diaries were produced, no doubt in response to the late Victorian love of miniatures. These diaries were novelties rather than serious products. Then, in the early part of the twentieth century, the specialist diary, catering for specific interests, indicated a move to increase the market by segmentation. This was shortly followed by the first diaries designed as corporate gifts, and it was this sector of the market that grew to dominate demand in most developed countries later in the 1900’s.

The pocket diary dominated in the first half of the 1900’s

These new uses for the diary stimulated a greater responsiveness to the changing requirements of the consumer. Internal layouts became more formalised, underlying the future-planning aspects of modern diary-keeping, while the binding and general design of the diaries reflected current tastes. Patriotism during the World Wars, the delicate fashion of the 1920’s and the very distinctive tastes fashioned during the eruption of youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s are all very apparent in the diary designs of those periods.

The 1970’s introduced a more international approach to the market, for Letts dairies were no longer confined mainly to the United Kingdom. Traditionally sold within the Commonwealth, other markets were now penetrated so that Letts diaries were sold to most of the main markets in the world. The most significant development having been made in North America, where sales grew from 100,000 dollars in the late-1970’s to 10 million dollars and where Letts was the leading brand-name for quality diaries by the 1990’s.

The need to appeal to a more sophisticated and international demand helped to raise the profile of the diary as a consumer product and this was very apparent in the ranges published in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The influence of fashion and the need to compete for space in retail outlets which themselves became increasingly conscious of design, became modern social trends which manifested themselves quite clearly in late century design of diaries. Just as an individual diary when written up in the traditional way provides a window on one small element in society at the time, so a range of diaries for a given year reflected some of the tastes and habits of contemporary society.

Letts Diaries ended up buying Filofax

Letts invented the loose leaf diary, only to watch Filofax dominate the market. In the end Letts Diaries acquired Filofax – a nod to the growing importance of this new category.

What of the future? Will digital diaries take over diary-keeping entirely? Over time, they will to a certain extent, even though paper based diary products sell in very large volumes. And though electronic devices are made to plan time and store information, they struggle to replace fully the real purpose of a diary. After all, the diary is a personal friend, to whom one entrusts details of ones appointments and aspirations, and in whom one confides ones most intimate thoughts.

You could argue that it was this thinking that led the Letts family to sell the majority of the diary business in the late 1990’s, when arguably the paper based diary market was at its peak. And through the turn of the century the family divested most of their paper based products. Following the millennium change the Letts family’s focus on the diary gradually drew to a close as they started to turn their attention to future Letts family ventures and investments, focused around the digital revolution.

Philip Letts is the 7th generation of the eponymous diary family and Chairman of the new Letts Group

And so began the generational handover from Anthony Letts, the 6th generation of the eponymous diary family, to Philip Letts, the 7th generation of Letts and the current leader of the family’s commercial activities.

In the last anniversary article about the history of the eponymous Letts diary family, we will look at the transition to the new, twenty first century Letts Group, led by Philip Letts, who alongside Anthony, is nurturing the 8th generation of this historic publishing family.


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

Letts Group Launch News Publication Focused on Business, Climate and Life

We are excited to launch the Letts Journal – a free, weekly publication that talks straight about business, climate and life. The Letts Journal is the latest Letts Group venture, from the family that invented the commercial diary over 200 years ago. It is the first step in our news media strategy.


Along with its main section, the Letts Journal has channels which include ‘Surviving’, ‘Liberty Shrugged’ and ‘Photo Synthesis’, providing future trends, political satire and photo cartoons. We’ll add more as the publication develop.

The Letts ushered in diary keeping, journaling and personal media. For a long time the Letts family have been innovating with new media products and dreaming of a time when news reporting would become more democratic and independent.

This year is the 225th anniversary of Letts. We believe it is the right time to launch a news publication with a difference.

News gathering is getting increasingly commoditised. User generated news is the future. We think there is a need for a new kind of digital publication that focuses on news commentary and insights. One that keeps busy readers informed AND entertained.

We take a view and we keep it short. Who’s got time for more?

News publications have become increasingly dry and jargonistic. We want to make reading the news easy and fun again.

The Letts Journal is about commentary, conversation and a more open and inclusive approach.

Straight from the hip… with a sprinkling of tongue in cheek.

We are excited to welcome you to the Letts Journal and hope you will enjoy our approach to talking straight about business, climate and life. Head over to our website for all the news and register to get updates direct to your inbox.


For all the updates and news from Letts Group go to our twitter page.

Letts Media Publication Examines Solutions to the Climate Change Crisis for Earth Day

Letts Media publication ‘Surviving’ outlines a possible roadmap to reduce global warming – for Earth Day.

We should all understand the challenge by now. If we don’t keep global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels we risk an irreversible climate crisis.

“There are two ends of the problem that need to be addressed. We need to both reduce emissions and get better at capturing and storing carbon in the right places, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere which adds to the heating problem.”

From ‘Surviving’

The article goes on to look at 5 macro-level solutions to the crisis that are proven, deliverable in the shorter term and internationally relevant. As we celebrate Earth Day 2021 it is important to not just focus on the risks that climate change presents – but to highlight the advances and approaches that can start to solve the problem.

“We have boiled it down to just 5 macro-solutions to the problem that combined should get us there – they include renewables, electrification, replacements, rewilding and lifestyle.

Extract from Letts Media’s ‘Surviving’

Letts Media publication ‘Surviving’ is about navigating business, innovation and life. It is edited by Philip Letts who is supported by some amazing analysts and researchers at the Surviving thinktank.

To read this and other articles go to Surviving.


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.

Letts Group’s Incubator History and Methodology

In the 1990’s it became clear that the battle for the digital diary would be lost before we could go after it in any meaningful way. We were hemmed into paper based products.

The desk diary market was destined to get eroded by Microsoft with their windows PC’s and MS Office software, which included integrated diary features.

Soon after, Nokia and Motorola launched calendar features for their mobile phones which, over time, would erode the traditional pocket diary business.

It was a huge wake up call. How could we have dominated the diary market for 175 years only to watch these upstart technology companies out innovate us?

For the Letts family it began the process of gradually divesting of paper based products so we could focus on a new, diversified group and a digital future. The seed of the future Letts Group was born.

We made a promise to ourselves that we would not get out innovated again. But how could we guarantee that? We had a hunch that it would not be enough just to focus on digital media and publishing. It came to us in a possible moment of madness that we should build a private incubator to help us develop our various ideas and turn the right ones into profitable products and services. A repetitive process that would be the engine of this new diversified group.

In the late 1990’s we started to experiment with what ultimately become Letts Incubate. We understood early on that we would need an incubator methodology to ensure that we could develop new products and businesses in a scalable and process-driven way.

We were also interested in the idea of incubating businesses and products that we could spin off and sell. Some carrying the Letts brand and some that were not Letts branded (which we call partner companies).

As a long standing family business we understood the constraints of many private, family controlled businesses. Access to capital is more limited which works for certain kinds of businesses and markets, but not for all.

Our incubator would need to be world class and one that could create and nurture a range of different ideas. So we designed a methodology calle Innov@te™. It took us a decade to complete the work as we wanted to develop it while we were also nurturing the early fruits of the nascent incubator. So we could road test the process.

Innov@te™ has come a long way. It has 7 key stages and 49 steps. Our manual is over 50 pages long and is constantly evolving. The 7 stages include:

  • Creativity
  • @HA Idea
  • Concept
  • Market Entry
  • Market Development
  • Market Dominance
  • Exit

We use it whenever we incubate a new Letts branded idea or a partner company. We have incubated quite a number of partner companies in the last twenty years.

Today, we also use Innov@te™ to help leading corporates develop a more effective approach to innovation and we recently established an incubation centre in the southwest of England.

We offer a monthly column called Surviving at the Letts Journal, which helps business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs to navigate the future. Subscribers to Surviving can also tap into the team and our panel of experts.

If you would like to find out more, go to Letts Incubate.


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.

You may want to sign up to our blog and follow us @LettsGroup.