Privilege Blog

The History And Meaning Of Monograms

TP asked me last week what my thinking was on monograms and where one ought to find them. In truth, my thinking on monograms has been pretty much limited to my family experience. In which, as TP said, towels yes, sheets yes, jewelry yes, personal items like mirrors and brushes, yes, silver yes, needlepoint yes, clothes no, accessories no. But that’s just my family, and I have never paid attention to the wider trend. So I did a little Internet research. I confess, I did not find the academic article on the history and cultural anthropology of monograms in America that I was looking for. It may be out there. Perhaps it is yet to be written.

Here’s what I did find. Almost everyone agrees, although without a lot of supporting data, that monograms were first seen on coins to mark the reign of Greek and Roman rulers. Almost everyone agrees, although again without much supporting data, that the next wave of monograms was caused by the rise of middle class artisans in Europe’s medieval era wanting to mark their work. Other things come randomly to mind. Clearly the family crests, heraldic symbols and tartans of European feudal lords were monograms of a sort, with symbols in place of letters, in an era where literacy was hardly universal.

Clearly monks illuminating manuscripts were the first in the West to use letters as decorative elements, in a time when formal art was found primarily in the Church.

It appears that, subsequently, the Victorians (1837-1901) went monogram crazy. Monograms were first used so as not to lose linens in the wash, but eventually showed up on decorative and personal items like lockets and silver. And ivory mirrors. It is not coincidental that Louis Vuitton first monogrammed, or logoed, the leather goods of his family firm in 1876. It is possible that Victorian class anxiety contributed to the proliferation of monograms. This is of course pure speculation on my part.

One might say that the monogram and its family symbolism cohorts have at times served to mark power, at times to mark skills, at times to mark ownership, at times to mark status, at times to signal family belonging, and occasionally, as an instance of the human urge to embellish and decorate. We like to make things look pretty. We like to make identities for ourselves. We like to signal who we are. However we got there.

Sources; images
Antique monograms from Elizabeth Anne Designs
Heraldry from Clan Lachlan
Illuminated manuscript from Bowdoin College
Antique Louis Vuitton trunk from Webshots by ch95

Sources; history
Embroidery Arts
and others, but they all said the same thing:).

20 Responses

  1. Yes, cool. I've always wondered how monogramming things was started. I assumed ownership and prestige. Nice visuals.

  2. thought provoking, as always LPC. marie antoinette incorporated hers extensively into her decor, of course.

    just trying to decide where i stand on t-shirts bearing family coats of arms. i know someone who's family secretly all wear t-shirts with the family motto on at christmas and other gatherings. seriously. to significantly compound the factor of ick, the motto they have adopted is '*name*… a cut above the rest'.

    we have one in latin, more appropriate for a cape. perhaps an ovenglove.

  3. "It is possible that Victorian class anxiety contributed to the proliferation of monograms."

    Purely speculative, but it does make sense. I found all of this fascinating.

  4. Well now, if this isn't fascinating, we don't know what is. Well done Miss LPC, goodness. Not only is it great info and visuals, but we are simply amazed by some of the facts, most notably that widespread use didn't begin until the Victorians got all stressed out about their proper place in the world. (We're going with your theory, it makes a lot of sense.)

    Thank you ever-so-much for answering so many questions and planting the seeds of so many more.

    May the week be kind to you and lots of fun as well!

  5. Very interesting! Have you seen Julie & Julia yet? Meryl Streep wears the coolest monogrammed pin in several scenes. I love it!

  6. As I recall, there is a huge list of monogram dos and don'ts in the Preppy Handbook. Your post is making me want to go back and look just for fun.

    As far as monogramming clothing, I must confess I monogram all my LL Bean long sleeve polo shirts in the classic diamond monogram. I like to coordinate the color with the pants (ha)….however this could have to do more with me getting free monogramming on anything because I have the LL Bean Visa card, which makes tend to go monogram crazy. ;-)

  7. One of my great-great-somethings (grandfather or uncle) had monogrammed mother of pearl gaming chips and duelling pistols, which I now have. I think he was somewhat of a rake …

  8. Monogrammed mother of pearl gaming chips? Seriously? Coolest thing ever! I would need to make those into jewelery, I believe. And I have looked up the pin in the Julia Child's movie. Beautiful.

  9. Just wanted to say I came by to search your archives for “monograms” because I wanted to order some monogrammed stationery and wanted to check out the etiquette first and knew you addressed monograms on your blog. :) What I found was helpful, but I would also be really interested if you ever did a post someday about stationery…classic, tasteful choices (including monogrammed). I checked the archives and didn’t see one on that yet (unless I missed one?)

      1. I will write something – although being a Silicon Valley person I’ve left much of my stationery past behind:). And in terms of cards vs. fold-over notes, I think the cards are in fact more formal often, although they were supposed to be less so.

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