The Goods

How Letterboards Took Over America

An Instagram-fueled hunger for simpler times turned out to be a hot (and easily exploited) business.

A letterboard with an important question
Holly Allen

Wynn Galbraith is only 3, but she already holds an important distinction: At 6 months old, she was, as far as anyone can tell, the first baby ever to be Instagrammed in a now-familiar style, a “flat lay” from above, with a then-novel prop: a felt letterboard that announced her age.

This photo setup is a common one on the app these days. You’ve no doubt seen and maybe even double-tapped at least a few of these shots, which are posted by the dozens each week. The typical sign is black with a wooden frame, and comes with a collection of white plastic letters to be endlessly rearranged into the pithy message of your choosing. The reason we can isolate Wynn as the probable pioneer of the pose is that her mother and father, Johnny and Joanna Galbraith, say they invented it. Inventing a certified Instagram pose is a rare feat, but rarer still is what the Utah-based Galbraiths did with the company they started in 2015, Letterfolk. They didn’t invent the felt letterboard, but by most accounts they are the people responsible for transforming the signs from a forgotten industrial relic to something like a nostalgic décor essential.

Since that fateful day when the photo of Wynn went up, letterboards have transcended baby photos—and Instagram—to become something you see just about everywhere. They provide the menus at cute doughnut shops and downtown pizza parlors, and they spell out signage at hip, urban food markets and craft fairs and hotel bars. Actual vintage signs, like the one that has been hanging in Minneapolis’ Matt’s Bar since 1954, are suddenly rendered trendy. Frankly, it’s gotten a little out of control: I’ve spotted letterboards in ads for things like tampons and breast pumps, and I recently saw one outside of a Madewell store promoting a sale. I even see them in people’s homes—granted, mostly when those homes are shown on social media. Jennifer Garner has one; she’s posted it on her Instagram. So have Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon.

Perlita Aguilar, a style blogger and Instagrammer in Riverside, California, used a letterboard last year in a series of photos recording the weeks of her pregnancy. (“Week 38: Decaf coffee is just water lying about being coffee,” it read.) “As soon as I found out that I was pregnant,” she told me, “I was trying to find a way to announce my pregnancy, and I noticed that, as I was looking through Pinterest and especially Instagram, these letterboards kept popping up.” Even if people scroll quickly by her captions, she figures, they can’t miss the letterboard. “My husband’s kind of involved in it too. Now when I post something, he’ll ask me, ‘What is the message?’ or ‘What are you going to put on the letterboard?’ ” When Aguilar’s daughter, Luna, arrived in November, the letterboard gained a new purpose.

You get the idea: It’s a popular type of sign. But felt letterboards also represent a whole aesthetic, one that harks back to a pre-smartphone, simpler era of handmade wholesomeness. Think church basements, the school cafeteria, building directories. There’s a paradox here: This aesthetic is inextricably linked to and has been almost entirely propagated via Instagram and social media, the very things people who feel overly tethered to their phones are trying to escape. That hasn’t seemed to matter. Letterboards are now common enough in hip, photo-ready spaces of a certain stripe that they’ve helped transform interior design. On the way there, the old-school displays also proved to be a lucrative business. And as the Galbraiths discovered, other attractive, entrepreneurial couples on Instagram soon wanted a piece.

Letterboards have had their fate entwined with social media pretty much since the Galbraiths first got the notion to bring them back. In 2015, Joanna had just had her second child, and she knew she wanted to find a creative way to do Wynn’s “monthly milestone” photos. This is the practice of taking one photo a month of a baby in the exact same spot for a year, to document her growth. If, before digital cameras and social media, most new parents wouldn’t have dedicated so much time to trying to get a baby to lie still for long enough to photograph her on 12 separate occasions, it’s now common enough that stores are full of props explicitly designed for these milestone photo shoots: blankets, chalkboards, blocks, and more. This is in keeping with what the Atlantic recently referred to as “the over-celebration of life events,” the phenomenon whereby experiences that used to go by privately and unceremoniously—gender reveals, promposals—now become occasions for celebration and social media glorification. There are simply more occasions for picture-taking and picture-sharing than there used to be. And letterboards, it turns out, make an excellent prop and accomplice. Instagram has captions, and let’s not discount their importance, but a letterboard can provide a caption built right into the photo, no glance elsewhere required. So when the idea popped into Joanna’s head, she knew she had something that could work for more than just Wynn.

Letterboards
Letterboards have moved from the realm of old churches and synagogues to hip kitchens and stores everywhere.
Heather Schwedel

The only problem was that she and Johnny had no idea where to get one. “We started looking and they were nowhere to be found, obviously a thing from the past,” Joanna said. “I think it was on like page 10 of a Google search that I finally found a manufacturer in the U.S. that was still making them,” Johnny added. That company was the Wisconsin-based United Visual Products Inc. When the Galbraiths got in touch, “I told them, ‘Hey, just so you know, this is a product that’s not exactly on the increase in its life cycle,’ ” UVP president Jon Ludwig told me. Demand for them had declined sharply over the past few decades, he said, a casualty of the digital signage industry, and most manufacturers had quit making them. Plus, UVP was used to dealing with customers who sought signage for industrial use, not homes. The company agreed to make prototypes for the Galbraiths anyway, and Ludwig remembered them as exacting in their specifications—in what wood they would use, in the dimensions of the boards. The now-standard 12-by-12 size you see all over the place? Perfect for Instagram’s formerly square-only format, and among the Galbraiths’ innovations.

Within a matter of months, Ludwig said, to his surprise, the boards were selling. Johnny said, “We were trying to explain to him, ‘You know, it’s like one of those things where vinyl’s in again.’ ” Eventually, Letterfolk became UVP’s No. 1 account. How did the couple do it? In short, Instagram. The two recognized from the get-go—and remember, this was back in 2015—that the platform was the natural place to roll out and promote the product. “When we first started, we said the success of our company will probably live or die based on our pickup on Instagram,” Johnny said. The @Letterfolk account started gaining followers, and teaching them, picture by picture, what could be done with letterboards. Thus the baby photos, the clever quotes, the pregnancy-bump progress shots, the interiors dotting the @Letterfolk feed. Early indicators were good: Before long, the company started getting shoutouts from popular accounts like Oh Happy Day: “I think we got like 20 orders almost immediately that we could trace to that exact post,” Joanna remembered. Next came HGTV star Joanna Gaines. After a year and a half, the Letterfolk account had 100,000 followers.

You’d think that inventing a famous Instagram pose—nay, an entire aesthetic—would set you up for life. Letterfolk has been successful: The company had sold more than 75,000 boards as of late last year. But it’s also spawned a host of imitators, many of which are produced in Asia and offered for much cheaper than Letterfolk, where prices for the standard size start at $50. “I wouldn’t say that we’re bitter about it,” Johnny said. “Where it’s a sore spot for us is in the way that the products are marketed or even the shapes and the dimensions and a lot of those things, ripping us off wholesale in the way we talk about our boards.” Some of them felt like direct copycats, knocking off specific colors and features of Letterfolk’s boards, but it also seemed possible to take inspiration from seeing the boards all over Instagram without realizing they had all come from one company. Now there are dozens of companies hawking letterboards on Amazon alone. And when a product does well on Amazon, it only causes more people to start selling it.

Ryan and Pam Bredemeyer, an Illinois couple of self-styled serial entrepreneurs, launched Felt Like Sharing, one of the many brands offering letterboards on Amazon, in July 2017. Pam was the one who noticed the trend. “She said, ‘No, Ryan, this is actually a thing,’ ” Ryan said. “I didn’t believe it. I thought they were just for old churches and stuff. I didn’t think it was all that chic, really, but then boom! I started researching them, and I could actually see over time there was a growing trend on Amazon.” At the time, they thought other letterboards on the market weren’t affordable enough—Felt Like Sharing currently lists a $19.99 board on Amazon—and didn’t offer enough color choices. They’ve now sold hundreds, they said, and their sales grew in 2018. As for the many other letterboard sellers they’re competing with, Ryan said, “Everybody’s always learning from everybody else’s mistake. That’s how the marketplace gets better and better.”

The Galbraiths are circumspect about this. “We’re pretty sheepish about ever, I don’t know, beating our chests about anything. This isn’t something we invented or patented,” Johnny said, insisting, “It’s been very fun to watch what was really a product for ourselves become a little niche industry for, at this point, hundreds of other companies.” Ludwig, the manufacturer, offers a blunter assessment: “The trend didn’t just originate—it was created by Letterfolk,” he said. “They came up with the concept. It was pretty much a dead product. I’ve developed thousands of products. I’ve never seen anybody create a consumer-driven demand like that.”

Indeed, it’s uncanny to walk into a cool restaurant in New York and see the design influence of a couple from Utah. But as with all trends, the letterboard-assaince won’t last forever. Last year was the first year that Letterfolk saw sales plateau. “Even the words coming out of my mouth—‘market saturation’ for letterboards—are crazy to me,” Johnny said. To keep the brand going, the Galbraiths have already started to expand their offerings into other areas, like paper products and journals, with a focus on products that feel nostalgic and encourage tactile experiences. Their passport collection, for example, is a series of journals containing space for logging experiences like road trips and national park visits. The ethos is to get away from screens and out into the world. But Instagram will, naturally, remain the most crucial avenue for marketing.