Letterhead for the Driskill Hotel in Austin featuring a striking image of the building still located at 6th and Brazos.

Ephemeral Art: The Nineteenth Century Letterhead Collection at the GLO

Texas General Land Office
Save Texas History


In 2022, the Portal to Texas History at the University of North Texas conducted a session at the Society of Southwest Archivists annual meeting entitled, “Every Book(mark) Has a Story: A Case Study in Working with Ephemera Collections.” The panelists reasoned that because you cannot always anticipate use, the path of least resistance was to host ephemera collections on the Portal and let the public decide. The panel reminded GLO staff of a particular esoteric collection that stands out among the Archives’ special collections — the Nineteenth Century Letterhead Collection.

[top-left] Rancher A.H. Pierce’s letterhead features a bull with a shocked expression. This particular lithograph reoccurs on many other ranches’ letterheads. [top-right] The Houston-based American Brewing Association’s letterhead includes a lithograph of a woman toasting a bust of an unknown man. [bottom] The Austin Fire Insurance Co. of Dallas appropriated a portrait of “The Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin for its letterhead.

This collection contains approximately 2000 letters written between 1890 and 1902 packed into six legal-sized archival document boxes occupying a single shelf in the basement of the Stephen F. Austin Building. Throughout this post, annotated staff favorites highlight this collection’s unusual, sometimes beautiful pieces of history.

The letters are mundane missives regarding taxes paid on grazing leases or inquiries about taxes or interest paid addressed to the Texas State Treasurer. They were routed to the GLO to provide answers to individuals or to prove that taxes were paid. Each letter has a dated red or blue vertical scrawl from an unnamed GLO employee, noting some action taken, such as “Received” or “Answered.” The correspondence is categorized by subject; though it is not according to the contents of the letters, but by the artwork on the letterhead.

[top-left] Letterhead of Carhart & Ross, suppliers of numerous dubious nineteenth-century medicinal products. [top-right] Letterhead of the Cattle Exchange Saloon featuring an excellent lithograph of a Hereford steer. [bottom] Letterhead of Maddox Bros. & Anderson, General Land Agents, displaying their storefront at 509 Congress Ave. in Austin. The Maddox brothers have archival material at the GLO as well as the Austin History Center.

The subjects indicate the business interests involved in land leasing and sales in the 1890s. These include ranches, merchants, railroads, doctors, druggists, and brewers. Some of the most ornate letterhead comes from hotels and saloons, where it was common for people to use the stationery provided by those establishments.

As unique as these letterheads are, they do not have much apparent research value, which is why they had been sitting on a shelf in the basement for decades without a way for the public to discover them. However, GLO staff did make some decisions. Many of the letters are plain, so several staff members chose the most interesting 418 to be included in the curated collection published on the Portal.

[top-left] Letterhead of Lone Star Brewing Co., the iconic “national beer of Texas,” featuring a more complex logo than beer aficionados find today. [top-right] Letterhead of Neathery & Bumpass that shows a cast iron stove and a diverse list of merchandise. [bottom] Letterhead for R.C. Stafford & Co. that advertised the bankers with a pastoral image of a bull.

Staff chose letters that were intricate, ornate, or unusual. Numerous bull portraits, building facades, and business names are in large, elaborate script. One in particular, “The Old Reliable Schuttler Wagon,” takes up half of the page, is in color, and features a seemingly contradictory tagline: “The best is the cheapest.” Some examples include the use of “stock images” or purchased images that were reused across multiple letterheads (that is, many of the most intricate images were not custom-made for the businesses that used them) and the use of photographs. In some cases, the pictures on the letterhead had little to do with the person or business and were used for their decorative value.

[left] John Bennett’s stationary featured a large, striking image of the Old Reliable Schuttler Wagon. [right] Alpine druggist W.B. Hancock advertised with a lithograph of a twelve-point buck.

Aside from the artistic details, the collection contains interesting geographical references. There are letters from towns that no longer exist that once merited inclusion on GLO county cadastral maps, like the ghost town of Rising Sun in present-day Jones County and Beaver in present-day Wichita County (which was so fleeting that it doesn’t even receive the ghost town distinction).

[top-left, detail] A red dot at the center of the detail image represents Rising Sun. J.F. Clark, Map of Jones County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1898, Map #4996, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [top-right] Letterhead of the Pioneer Rock Ranch in Rising Sun, Jones County. [bottom-left] Letterhead of D. Waggoner & Son, a store in Beaver, Wichita County, that sold dry goods and other items.[bottom-right, detail] Beaver appears next to a railroad line in western Wichita County. Ed. Schutze, Wichita County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1889, Map #4144, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The question remains: How did these letters become part of the GLO’s special collections?

It is likely that these letters were retained accidentally. Once the GLO took some official action based on their contents, the letters should have been discarded or sent back to the treasurer’s office. Today, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) holds a collection of similar letters called “Texas Treasury Department letters received — land” that are referenced in the “Other Resources” section of the finding aid for Texas General Land Office Incoming Correspondence. The collection consists of approximately 243 unbound volumes, unprocessed but loosely organized. These letters have similar content, but not all were routed to the GLO. The TSLAC letters also cover a broader range of dates.

The GLO’s letters likely belong with those in the TSLAC collection. However, since the collection is unprocessed and probably unused or underused, the letters will stay at the GLO and remain examples of a long, obsolete bureaucratic process embellished with exciting examples of historical Texana artwork. This collection shows that artwork can be found in the strangest of places, even at the top of the page.



Texas General Land Office
Save Texas History

Official Account for the Texas General Land Office | Follow Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, M.D. on Twitter at @DrBuckinghamTX. www.txglo.org