When Danielle Kleiner’s 5-year-old daughter was a newborn, the St. Paul mom took a posed photo of her each month, a chalkboard marking the milestone propped nearby.
This year, as Kleiner’s youngest approaches 1, she’s been documenting monthly changes in a similar way.
The only difference? She’s swapped out the chalkboard for a felt letter board.
“I saw them all over social media and immediately thought it was something I would love to have,” said Kleiner, who is director of operations at Twin Cities Moms Blog.
Old-school felt letter board signs, with grooves for stick-in plastic letters and symbols, are suddenly everywhere, spelling out (usually in all caps) an endlessly changeable string of funny sayings, pithy quotes and kids’ milestones.
They are replacing once-trendy chalkboards in back-to-school photos, baby pictures and pregnancy announcements shared online. They’re also popping up to add ever-changing inspirational sayings and a vintage charm to the walls of living rooms, company foyers and coffee shops or restaurants. The Walker Art Center’s stylish Esker Grove restaurant now sports a giant one.
Kleiner first used her felt board to announce her youngest’s adoption, and recently spelled out “FIRST DAY OF PRE-K” for her oldest.
“I liked the idea that I could post quotes, things our kids said, song lyrics, etcetera, and be able to change it whenever I wanted to,” she said. “I also loved the idea of documenting our kids’ milestones.”
A number of Instagram accounts are dedicated entirely to collecting and reposting photos of letter boards, often propped against the wall near a plant or held up by a baby, with sayings that range from thought-provoking to funny to eye-roll-inducing.
On @letterboardquotes, recent posts show boards spelling out “IT COSTS $0.00 TO BE A KIND HUMAN BEING,” “COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY” and “RAISING KIDS IS A WALK IN THE PARK … JURASSIC PARK.”
Some boards manage to convey a little more edge. A large gray board that hangs on a hot pink wall in the reception area at the Coven, a co-working space for women and nonbinary people in Minneapolis’ North Loop, is home to a series of various feminist quotes.
Recently, the board had quotes from Anita Hill, “(I DID WHAT MY CONSCIENCE TOLD ME TO DO, AND YOU CAN’T FAIL IF YOU DO THAT),” and Shirley Chisholm “(IF THEY DON’T GIVE YOU A SEAT AT THE TABLE BRING A FOLDING CHAIR).”
The company’s office manager finds them and swaps them out to match what’s going on in current events and members’ lives.
“Our letter board reminds people of the good in the world and calls people to action,” said Coven co-founder Alex West Steinman.
Back in style
These boards were once common in the days before digital signs. Schools used to use them in class photos, spelling out grade and year, and police departments had suspects hold them for mug shots. Small businesses and diners often displayed them prominently to list specials.
A few have stuck around. The eight-item menu at Matt’s Bar in south Minneapolis has been listed in the same letter board sign since “the dawn of time,” said general manager Amy Feriancek. Or at least since it opened in 1954.
The wood-framed sign, which hangs behind the bar near the cook station, has been collecting grease since the price of a Jucy Lucy was less than a dollar.
“As you can see, the older ones are — discolored,” said Feriancek.
Updates are noticeable for a while, until those white letters turn brown like the rest. Feriancek keeps a bag of the letters in a file drawer, and once worried that it would be hard to find replacements.
That’s not an issue at the moment.
Many credit a company called Letterfolk, which is run by a Salt Lake City couple, Johnny and Joanna Galbraith, with spearheading the boards’ renaissance a few years ago when they launched their own line. Now, places like Target and Amazon also sell them, and tutorials on how to make your own abound online.
Back in 2015, the Galbraiths were looking for a photo prop to use in monthly milestone pictures of their newborn daughter. They were trying to come up with something unique, when Johnny thought about his old class photos, and the letter boards.
He found an industrial signage company willing to part with some samples, and the couple hung one on their wall and used another in photo after photo during their little girl’s first year.
“We immediately fell in love with the vintage aesthetic and ability to bring words and messages into our home,” he said.
They got a boost from early adopters like interior designer and HGTV star Joanna Gaines, who shared a photo on Instagram of one on a credenza leaning against a gray wall, spelling out a quote from Helen Keller: “LIFE IS EITHER A DARING ADVENTURE OR NOTHING AT ALL.”
The boards give people who want to layer words, icons and messages on top of photos and share them on social media a clever way to do so without using Photoshop or word-art apps like Baby Pics.
“Part of what makes them so popular is that they’re the antithesis of our digital lives. They’re tactile, nostalgic, and require a little bit of time and TLC to craft the perfect message,” said Galbraith.
The Galbraiths love keeping track of how boards are being used to announce personal milestones, from final chemo treatments to wedding engagements.
They also look out for some of the best “mom humor” or wise words they see spelled out on them, Galbraith said.
Their most recent favorite?
“BE THE MR. ROGERS OF YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.”