Some information in this article was provided by Robert Libauer during a telephone conversation of January 28, 2006. Minor corrections and modifications were made on Jan. 3, 2013.
Somewhere back around 1940, a young school teacher in Baltimore, Maryland made an observation, The brass stencils she gave to her students to use in creative projects were giving them problems.
Their crayons and colored pencils were not fitting into the narrow serifs (the small cross strokes) of the letters. Ruth Libauer Hormats had an idea. What if there were some stencils made of cardboard? What if the letters and numbers were slightly fatter – especially in the serifs – to allow for easy coloring? What if there were small holes slightly above and between each letter, number or punctuation mark to allow for precise spacing?
After formulating her concept of such a stencil, Mrs. Hormats had two prototypes made up at a cost of ten dollars each – a significant sum of money for the time.
Soliciting many of the major stores and store chains around the country, she eventually received a reply from the F.W. Woolworth Company. The five-and-ten cent store giant was interested in her product, but needed to see one firsthand. As she shipped one of the two prototypes off to New York, all she could envision was ten dollars going away. Ruth did not put much stock in the chance of receiving an initial order, but she had presumed wrong.
The Woolworth order had been the linchpin for launching the Stenso Lettering Company in her apartment kitchen, then moving it to the basement of her parents’ home at 2510 Elsinor Avenue in Baltimore. A small office was set up, and girls were hired to help stuff the stencils into their envelopes. Ruth Hormats once recalled to me during a telephone conversation that the whole family had even sat around the dinner table inserting the freshly die-cut stencils into their envelopes and packing them for resale.
Robert Libauer remembered an anecdote from those early years: He was called inside from an afternoon of softball and other sports activities by his father and taken into the cellar of their home to package the stencils into individual envelopes to get them ready for shipment.
Robert mumbled under his breath “son of a bitch” and resented being distracted from his play in order to do such menial work. His father was at the other end of the cellar and quietly responded to Robert’s expletive with “My mother is not a bitch”.
Robert was horrified that his father had overheard him and answered, “Gee, Dad... I wasn’t talking to you”, wherein his father calmly replied, “There’s only two of us here”.
The Eugene B. Baehr Company was a major super-wholesaler [who also sold to other wholesalers] and became the first distributor of Stenso’s products.
Morris Libauer had accompanied Ruth to New York in order to present a hand-made sample of her stencil to Eugene B. Baehr for his review and consideration. Baehr ordered 50 cartons of the stencils - packed one gross to the case. This order, along with the one from F.W. Woolworth is what got the company up and running.
The Stenso Lettering Guide was so unique with its spacing holes (called “indicators” by Hormats) that she submitted her patent design in 1940 and was awarded a patent for her invention in 1942. In an unparalleled event, the prestigious Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan held a demonstration of this versatile new product.
Manufacturing the stencils was not always a perfect task. The first die provided by Accurate Steel Rule Die (of New York) was too much for an ordinary press to handle and the press broke. To overcome this problem, the die was cut in half, and the stencils were die-cut in two parts to produce the final result.
Morris Libauer (Ruth and Bob’s father) was the unsung hero of the operation. While Ruth taught school and Robert solicited sales, the elder Libauer worked with the die makers and the printers in order to get their inventory produced. Morris Libauer was a retired furniture retailer and upholsterer whose business once took up a full city block in Baltimore.
After selling the furniture business and living on a lifetime annuity, Morris Libauer wanted to venture into other projects. He initially manufactured and sold a line of furniture polish called Colonial, but became enamored with his daughter’s stencil invention.
In 1946, Robert Libauer traveled the country promoting the line. A year later, in 1947, Morris Libauer passed away. It was then when Robert took full charge of the growing young company. His mother had been quite unhappy with the endless trucks pulling up to their modest home to pick up merchandise to be shipped, so eventually Robert Libauer moved Stenso into an abandoned grocery store, and after that to Baltimore’s Industrial Building, where he purchased presses and hired a die-cutter.
As sales grew, so did the diversity of the product line. The initial products included lettering guides in 1/2 inch, 3/4 inch, 1 inch and 1-1/2 inch Roman (serif) capital letters and numbers, a 1/2 inch Gothic (sans serif) card with capitals, lower case and numbers and a map of the United States. The 1/2 inch Gothic was discontinued and was replaced with a 3/4 inch offering, as there were problems at the time in having steel rule dies bent so precisely into small letter shapes.
The stencils were offered individually or as small and large assortments known as “combination sets”. The average size of these stencil cards were approximately 8 inches by 10-1/2 inches. (Later products with letters larger than 3 inches were on stencil board stock of appropriately different sizes.)
For a while, a stencil toy (Product #401) called Stenso Circus Animals was produced as well as other “educational” stencils during the 1940’s. A special-run product in the early 1950’s offered the Hebrew alphabet (Product #H-54).
A unique stencil design was issued toward the end of the 1940’s which allowed users to create letters in three different styles. Called “2 inch Solid Gothic”, the letters and numbers were atypical of most stencil letters which had “breaks” within the letter forms. These letters were complete – at least on their vertical sides – and they were cut out as if resting on “rails”. The user would trace the sides of the letters, then use a straight edge to close off the tops and bottoms. The user was then encouraged to either leave the letters in outline form, fill them in, or color in the background – hence the “three-way” application.
The company’s growth prompted Bob to purchase his own building at 1101 East 25th Street and install two Miehle presses and facilities to make cardboard boxes for his company as well as other clients. Previously, the various components were subcontracted and simply assembled at one location.
The 1950’s saw a large expansion of the product line to include different Roman and Gothic combination sets (with new sizes added) and Gothic sets ranging from 3 inches to 12 inches, as well as the addition of new lettering styles. Old English, Frontier (Western) and Modern Script (similar to the digital typeface “Croissant”) bolstered the range of lettering available to the consumer. A decorative stencil line was introduced in the mid-1950’s for home crafters. As Alaska and Hawaii became states, an additional card was included with the Stenso Map of the United States (Product #50).
In the 1950’s, Libauer took a unique approach to marketing Stenso products... Using a Dun and Bradstreet directory, and seeking out retailers (such as 5 and 10 cent stores) with good credit ratings, he sent them a package containing an assortment of stencils worth $25.00 in wholesale value, a cover letter and a dollar bill pinned to the letter.
The letter contained text somewhat similar to the following: Dear ___________, I cannot afford to have a salesman call on you personally. If you put these items on your counter, your customers will buy them. Should you accept this merchandise, your payment of $25.00 is due in return. In the event you do not accept this merchandise, the enclosed dollar bill will more than adequately cover the cost of returning them.
Incredibly, over 40% of the unsolicited mailings were accepted, and Bob had one more marketing trick up his sleeve for those who hadn’t either paid for or returned the unsolicited stencils. There was a series of twelve monthly letters sent to these retailers as reminders. The twelfth one would be addressed to the merchant, and the page left blank until you reached near the bottom of the page. One line was typed: I have said all I can say in the previous eleven letters.
Over the years, stencil board was bought from any available source, and on one occasion Libauer had come across a warehouse full of the product, so he purchased it. This gave him enough raw material to supply the company’s needs for a few years.
By the early 1960’s a “Modern Gothic” stencil was introduced with three alphabets – all in Art Deco style – available on one stencil card. This unique stencil [despite earlier problems with small steel rule dies] offered alphabets and numbers in 1/4 inch, 3/8 inch and 1/2 inch sizes. The 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch Roman stencils were re-tooled to provide both solid and stencil versions of the letters. Many intermediate sizes, previously available only in combination sets of their respective type style were now being sold as individual units.
Around 1962, Robert Libauer merged his company with Ottenheimer Publishers of Owings Mills, Maryland; famous for their Vest Pocket Dictionaries. Although manufacturing was still done at the plant on East 25th Street for a time, by 1964 the operation of Stenso was moved into the Ottenheimer facilities and new packaging was then designed and introduced. Libauer’s original plan was to merge the two companies and then sell them to a larger company, and publisher McGraw-Hill showed an interest in such an acquisition. However, some third-generation members of the Ottenheimer family didn’t want this sale to go through.
Ottenheimer Publishers ran into some financial problems, and subsequently sold Stenso to the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts.
Dennison took over Stenso in 1965. A “20” prefix was added to all product numbers to fit into Dennison’s product identification system.
From 1965 until the early 1980’s, the Stenso line was nothing more than an “addendum” to Dennison’s vast product line. Stencil board was replaced with file folder stock, and the dies – which needed re-knifing periodically in order to maintain cutting quality – were often left in disrepair.
Finally, during the beginning years of the 1980’s, the line was thoroughly overhauled. All of the old dies were scrapped, and new ones were manufactured. The largest size in the line was a 3” stencil, and the “Gothic” stencil was actually a version of Helvetica. The Roman products were actually fashioned after a stencil font designed originally in metal type, and later as a digital font.
Stencil “cards” were now approximately 3-1/2 inches high by 8-1/2 inches wide, and were die cut and folded into plastic-wrapped packaging so that they were better suited to “pegboard sales” in small spaces.
As the fortunes of Dennison faltered in the 1990’s (no doubt due to over-expansion and fiscal irresponsibility), the onetime largest supplier of office products globally was forced to merge with the Avery Corporation (the originators of self-adhesive labels) in order to survive.
The Stenso name was later dropped for the Avery name, and eventually discontinued. Part of the demise of the line can be attributed to the era of dry transfer lettering, and the digital revolution brought on by affordable home computers (where thousands of type faces are available).
Stenso’s only rival for the greater part of the company’s existence got its start in 1955 under the name “Stencil-It”. Formed by Bernie Aronson, [a relative of the Libauers who once worked for the company] along with a financial partner (Sidney Levyne), the company was soon put out of existence by a court action brought on by Robert Libauer.
The two partners reformed the company as E-Z Letter around 1956 and Libauer [in a phone conversation to me some years ago] told me he decided to no longer fight the competition. E-Z Letter eliminated its remaining stock of “Stencil-It” product by using a hole punch to eliminate the word “It” printed on the stencil boards.
Originally, Sidney Levyne was only an investment partner, having had a successful career in advertising. To note, Levyne had designed the logo for the Cat’s Paw line of soles and heels used at most shoe repair shops.
Around 1964, Bernie Aronson and his wife (Adele) both passed away from leukemia. Sidney Levyne purchased the remaining interest in the company from the Aronson heirs and his son (David) came on board in 1965 to help run the company. Along with E-Z Letter, David eventually forayed into other lettering products under the banner “Quik-Stik”.
The Quik-Stik Company carried their own line of dry transfer lettering (manufactured for them by Chartpak) along with vinyl self-adhesive letters (Super Stik) and a line of movable self-adhesive cardboard letters (Quik Stik). Quik–Stik was a dismal failure due to the combination of the weight of the cardboard letters and the type of adhesive used. It was discontinued, while the Super–Stik vinyl line thrived.
Eventually David Levyne bought out his family’s interest in E-Z Letter and merged the two companies into the E-Z Letter/Quik–Stik Company. The “Super Stik” name was dropped in the 1980’s due to litigation brought on by another company claiming prior ownership of the name. All products eventually carried the E-Z Letter name. The stencil line was expanded to include Quik–Set, an interlocking paper stencil and a line of “painting” type stencils – both which could be used for repetitive stenciling (such as marking shipping boxes).
In the 1970’s, E-Z Letter was the first manufacturer of lettering guides to die cut their products out of plastic rather than stencil board, but eventually returned to the original stencil board format.
E-Z Letter evolved into E-Z Industries, which carried an expanded catalog line of lettering and sign devices, personal planners, calendars and other scheduling products. The company eventually sold its stencil line to Geotype in the 1990’s, as the sale of lettering stencils diminished. Many competing products (dry transfer lettering, self-adhesive vinyl lettering and the introduction of the personal computer) had changed the market forever.
As the outlet for his other products shrank due to the disappearance of small “mom and pop” stationers, David Levyne sold E-Z Industries and went into the printing brokerage business.
It should be noted that Stenso [during its last years as a Dennison brand] also marketed vinyl and dry transfer product.
Ironically, where Stencil-It/E-Z Letter had been created [in part] by a former employee of Stenso, Joe Kyle had left E-Z Letter to form his own [short lived] line of stencils, dry transfer and self-adhesive vinyl lettering called Presto.
Geotype went through a bankruptcy and the restructured company, along with Visu-Com were acquired by another company, but neither of their original stencil lines survive.
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and during the mid-1960’s the Duro Decal Company of Chicago, Illinois (now known as Duro Art Industries) introduced its own expanded line of stencils. For years a manufacturer of water-applied decorative decals, decal letters and numbers for signage and a line of brushes and supplies for artists, Duro had carried sets of painting stencils – letters and numbers on small, individual cards for putting identifying marks on houses, mail boxes, boats, etc.
Lettering guides Duro marketed were clones of many of Stenso’s past and then-current products. Duro also sold individual self-adhesive vinyl letters and numbers for signage purposes.
The only other remaining major player in the “lettering gude” market was Avery – soon to become the owner of the Dennison/Stenso brand – their stencil line becoming the “successor” to the market when the Stenso line was discontinued. Eventually, these stencils were also discontinued.
The lettering guides [as first introduced by the Libauers and Stenso] are no longer marketed, although stencil alphabets can be found in a variety of brands and formats to cover most signage, craft and hobby needs. Yet, it was a simple idea set forth by a young school teacher in Baltimore so long ago which gave millions of school children, small business owners, church groups and others a chance to create attractive lettering with a minimum of cost or experience.
Ironically, the “crafting and scrap booking” craze has been steadily growing around the country, and various types of stencils have enjoyed steady sales due to a resurgence of interest and popularity in this type of medium, but it comes too late for a line which [for over sixty years] helped millions of school children, business owners, home hobbyists and just about anyone who needed legible lettering (but lacked the talent) “letter like a pro”.
Christmas stencils were produced in the late 1950’s, and sold fairly well seasonally, but Mr. Libauer recalled that if he had produced enough stock prior to the “holiday buying season” of around March and April, he could have increased sales greatly by soliciting them at trade shows for toy merchants.
One idea Robert Libauer never got around to marketing was a puzzle toy similar to a jigsaw puzzle, but utilizing a pressure-sensitive material so the parts could be repositioned.
Libauer’s one regret was not moving into the line of pressure-sensitive (stick-on) lettering, which eventually became a large retail market.
Although he said he made a decent living from the stencil company, Bob felt he had lost money with the merger of the line to Ottenheimer Publishers, but he had more than made up for this by going to New York, joining a Park Avenue brokerage firm and getting into investment banking and other interests. At 93 [of this writing], Libauer is still working and not looking back to the past.
Ruth Libauer Hormats passed away in 2004 at the age of 95. She had been living with her daughter in Ft. Lauderdale, FL and had been in poor health for some time.
If you have any vintage Stenso stencils you are willing to supply to the author for his collection, please contact him at jnl1952 (AT) juno (DOT) com with your information. Duplicate stencil sets are always welcome.
Thanks and appreciation is given to the late Ruth Libauer Hormats, Robert Libauer - former owner of the Stenso Lettering Company™ and David Levyne - former owner of E-Z Letter/Quik Stik™ in helping to fill in much of the missing information in this research project.
Some background on the author...
Jeff Levine’s fascination with Stenso Lettering Guides began in Brooklyn, NY around 1960, while he was in the third grade. A fellow classmate brought one of these stencils into class, and Jeff was immediately taken with how simply one could trace the outline of the alphabet to create decorative lettering.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff started avidly collecting as many of the Stenso items he could find, often visiting a neighborhood print shop to seek new additions for his collection, as well as scouring any store he felt would yield a “hidden treasure”.
Over the years, his hobby took a back seat to other interests, and many of the stencils were either lost, given away or became too worn out to collect. The influence from the lettering stencils remained, and he has worked in different facets of the graphic arts field.
In the early 1980’s, Jeff was able to fulfill one quest: To locate the originators of this product he found so fascinating and to learn what he could about the evolution of the company.
With the computer age and the growth of the internet, the time seemed to be right for Jeff to revive his hobby and love of the lettering stencils which eventually guided him toward lettering and graphic design. He conceived of this web article and started collecting the old stencils once again, and in doing so has discovered many product items he never knew existed.
After assembling all of the basic information, thus was born the pinnacle of a hobby started so many years ago, and an article that also serves as a tribute to the creative insight of the late Ruth Libauer Hormats, the business acumen of Robert Libauer, and a simple little product which turned many a school child or business owner into a sign maker.
Jeff Levine is currently active as a digital type designer, and a number of his font releases were modeled after vintage stencil items in his collection, including many of the products produced by Robert Libauer from the 1940’s through the 1960's. You can see Jeff’s creative output by visiting his page at MyFonts.com.
Stenso Stencil Lettering Guides (product lines of 1940-1964) (line is reassigned a “20” prefix by Dennison after 1966 and some items cancelled.)
(Line is reassigned a “20” prefix by Dennison after 1966 and some items cancelled.)
PLEASE NOTE: This a modified, text-only article edited and abridged from the original site. All images and trademark examples previously displayed were removed at the request of the counsel for Avery-Dennison. While the author of the original site believed that the images showcased were considered “Fair Use” [as they were solely for historical information and not for profit], he and Larabiefonts complied with that request.
The information contained in the text of this article is based on factual research and is offered purely for educational and entertainment purposes. No connection or claim to any of the corporate or brand trademarks named in this document is expressed or implied, nor should it be construed that any corporate entity has endorsed this web page.