Boola Boola is Yale University’s fight song (and I suggest that you listen as you read and hum along). Back in my early high school days, earning a varsity letter and becoming a “Letterman” was the ultimate status symbol in the snob school that I attended for a year. I earned mine for wrestling and wore it often (when I worked at the East Village Other I gave my letter sweater to a hippy friend who wore it proudly, if not sarcastically).
Varsity letters are uniquely American. When organized sports began in the late 19th century, uniforms were required along with emblems, often in the form of woven letters.
Thanks to the old faithful Wiki we learn:
“In 1865, the Harvard baseball team added an Old English ‘H’. The ‘H’ was embroidered on the gray flannel shirt. The football team started to use the ‘H’ in 1875. It is interesting to note that for 25 years following the introduction in 1865 of the letter, it was the practice for the team captain to allow certain players who played in the most important games (Yale or Princeton) to keep the ‘H’ jerseys as an award. If a player did not play in an important game, the player had to return the jersey at the end of the season. Awarding the ‘H’ jersey may have been the birth of the varsity letter as an award.”
Why the slab serif was the preferred letter is not known, but presumably it had enough weight to be seen from the viewing stands. Today, there are many styles, but the outline slab remains the most common. If there is an indigenous “American Typography,” this may be it. (See variations here.)
In the 1930s, the varsity letter made its appearance on leather-sleeved, wool-bodied jackets. I still want one of those.
Postcards From PRINTPRINT magazine, one of the world’s most revered graphic design publications, turned 75 in 2015. In celebration, Steven Heller curated a collection of 75 postcards, each featuring an iconic cover of PRINT magazine straight from the archives.