Letraset began trading in London in 1959, providing typefaces on dry-transfer sheets which could be used to add text to commercial artwork – a product that it had uniquely developed.
Various fonts were produced on thin film, which were then loosely secured to clear, rigid, plastic sheets, which had an adhesive backing protected by a thin layer of tissue. When the tissue was removed, and pressure was applied (usually via a pen or pencil) to the sheet’s topside, the film image was transferred onto whatever was underneath the original sheet.
This “rub-down” lettering transfer system became instantly popular for making quick, camera-ready, artwork for adverts, magazines, posters and printed media in general.
Looking for opportunities to diversify, Letraset began using their dry transfer system to make children’s activity games. These usually comprised a drawn coloured art background, with a selection of additional images supplied on a sheet of transfers, which could then be added to the main image one at a time.
The initial release of these activity sets was marketed under the loose banner of “Action Transfers”. The early releases were very generic with subjects such as fairy tales, pirates, lunar bases, and the wild west chosen as the focus of the transfer sets.
In 1966, Letraset joined forces with the games company Waddingtons, to produce a series of “Instant Picture” books, based on Disney’s Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh, alongside Gerry’s Anderson’s Thunderbirds. A few years later, Anderson’s Joe 90 TV series also received the same “Instant Picture” book treatment.
Around this time, the company invested in colour printing for their rub-down products. An early set of Batman colour dioramas, with colour transfers, was promoted on packs of Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal at the time.
Letraset made a big investment in 1968, building a new printing factory in Ashford, Kent, and production of new full-colour transfer packs began in earnest. Alongside offerings based on Tarzan, Dumbo and The Jungle Book, 1968 saw the release of a full-colour transfer diorama based on the Gerry Anderson TV series Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons.
A new generic range of “Action Transfers” was also released depicting scenes from both World Wars, outer space, pirates, Vikings and underwater cities. And also, lots of footballers.
In 1974, the company released the first set of “Super Action Heroes!” transfer sets, which featured large-format A4-ish sized wrap-around dioramas. Alongside Tarzan, Kung Fu, Batman and Superman, Letraset produced Star Trek – Voyage to the Lost Planet under licence from Paramount.
It depicted Captain Kirk and crew fighting various green beasts and winged creatures, with hardly a token red-shirted crew-member to call upon.
The Sweeney diorama image (used as a background to the transfers) is bizarre, depicting a finely-crafted heist on a butchers wagon, with a gang of villains making off with slabs of meat! (pictured below)
The Doctor Who offering, meanwhile, has a fleet of Dalek flying saucers attacking Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s London residence is robustly defended by a battalion of soldiers and armoured tanks, all battling around the TARDIS, in scenes that the BBC could only imagine producing on their shoestring budgets.
Footballers and pop stars made up various other Letraset sets of the mid-1970s, while generic space battles and wild west scenarios also padded out the company’s product ranges. Invariably, its best-selling items were proving to be those based around films or TV shows, which invariably had a ready-made audience.
A third set of “Super Action Heroes!” transfer sets was released in 1977. This time, titles included Wonder Woman Vs Killer Kreatures, Batman: Gold Diggers of Gotham, Superman Vs Brainiac & the Reptilians, and The New Avengers Vs the Cybernauts.
The latter set featured an attack on a picturesque stately home by the sinister robotic Cybernauts, while Steed, Gambit and (a particularly athletic) Purdey leap into action to defend it, aided by bazooka-wielding policemen.
1977 saw Letraset acquire a licence to release merchandise based on the film Star Wars, which was released in the UK very late that year. One of its first tie-in products was a set of four transfer sheets which were given away with the Shreddies breakfast cereal, which also printed four artwork dioramas on the back of their packets on which the transfers could be mounted.
It then released a set of three large-format diorama transfer sets, depicting scenes from the Film. Letraset were completely taken by surprise at the success of its Star Wars range, which quickly became the company’s best-selling product.
Letraset’s UK printing operation could barely cope with demand, and so it purchased an Italian printing company, Linea Sodecor, to share production. This Italian company had an Offset Litho press, which was a much cheaper printing process than its Gravure presses in Ashford and Letraset switched the production of most of its Action Transfer business to the Italian printing company.
The following year, hoping that the success of its Star Wars merchandise could be replicated with similar film and television licences, Letraset produced transfer diorama sets based on Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole and Battle of the Planets, but the sales figures, whilst good, weren’t in the Star Wars league.
1979 ended with the company producing a small range of Doctor Who-themed transfers in collaboration with Marvel UK, who gave away the sets as free gifts in the first four issues of its Doctor Who Weekly title.
Letraset purchased a company called Thomas Salter for £1 million in late 1978, and over the next few years, it began increasingly to push its Action Transfers products through this subsidiary company. Under the Thomas Salter label between 1982 and 1984, transfer sets based on Worzel Gummidge, The Fall Guy, E.T., Return of the Jedi, Masters of the Universe, The A-Team and Knight Rider were released.
But Letraset found that the market for transfers in UK newsagents and toy shops was rapidly diminishing, mainly due to the popularity of stickers made by rival Italian company Panini.
Due to the downturn of business, the various companies that comprised Letraset Consumer Products began to be broken up, starting in 1981. Thomas Salter was sold off but retained the Action Transfer brand.
Thomas Salter was then also declared bankrupt in 1983, but still continued trading in a much-reduced form until a company called Peter Pan Playthings purchased their assets, including Action Transfers, from the Official Receiver.
Peter Pan Playthings then also declared bankruptcy and sold the rights to Action Transfers to a company called Acorn in 1984.
However, the artwork on these later sets – both of the character transfer sheets and the diorama backdrops – was very basic indeed, and lacked the attention to details and visual dynamism of the Letraset transfer sets of the 1970s.
These Rainbow Toys packs proved to be the last transfer sets made by the company that had once been called Letraset. Action Transfers were no more.