Sunday, August 9, 2009

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:).



Blogger Little Bow Prep said...

Cool post!

August 9, 2009 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Maureen@IslandRoar said...

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

August 9, 2009 at 8:07 PM  
Blogger BALLET NEWS said...

Hi, just wanted to stop by to say how much I've enjoyed your posts. Thank you !

August 10, 2009 at 4:04 AM  
Blogger indigo said...

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.

August 10, 2009 at 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Jan said...

"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.

August 10, 2009 at 7:54 AM  
Blogger Erin Helgerson said...

I love monograms. So delightfully preppy and fun! XO!

August 10, 2009 at 8:14 AM  
Blogger Torch Lake Prep said...

Thanks for the history, very interesting!

August 10, 2009 at 8:23 AM  
Anonymous Lindy said...

I love monograms, too. Be sure to read Miss Janice for pointers on monogram etiquette at:

For example, a monogram for a couple named Mary and Ken Smith would be -mSk-; the woman's name is always first.

August 10, 2009 at 8:45 AM  
Anonymous the Preppy Princess said...

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!

August 10, 2009 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger Princess Freckles said...

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

August 10, 2009 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger Tickled Pink And Green said...

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. ;-)

August 11, 2009 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Tiffany said...

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 ...

August 12, 2009 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

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.

August 13, 2009 at 6:43 AM  

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