“A striking monogram, combining the first letters of the full name or the first and last name is an enviable possession,” wrote Jean Wilde Clark in A Desk Book on the Etiquette of Social Stationery.
The book was printed by Eaton, Crane (yes, that Crane) and Pike in 1910. However, the monogram is still a possession envied — one that, in the age of e-communication, is as coveted as ever.
It is with this modern day appreciation that we take a look back at the history of the monogram — an art form most near and dear to Crane & Co.’s social stationery heart.
A book of cyphers, or, Letters reverst : being a work very pleasant & usefull as well for gentlemen as all sorts of artificers engravers painters carvers chacers embroiderers &c. : where you may find a cypher for any name whatsoever curiously compos’d after the newest mode
“Most of what we think of as ‘monograms’ are actually ciphers or cyphers,” Collins explains in reference to the book’s title. “The letters in a true monogram depend upon each other for support. As in, should you take one letter away from the design, the main stroke or stem of the other letters would disappear. A cipher is pretty much any combination of letters in a design.”
For centuries, Collins says anyone with money (literacy, after all, was a skill reserved for the wealthy and powerful) would commission an artisan to create a stylish monogram, which was used to identify personal property, from saddles to China to book covers.
The insignia was more an individualized expression and less a legible representation of one’s initials, so it was meant to show off the virtuosity of the craftsperson who created it. A desire for unparalleled uniqueness meant oftentimes the identity of the artist was kept very close to the chest.
“One cannot urge too strongly,” writes Clark in Social Stationery, “the necessity for originality and unusualness in monogram conceits.”
In a very Downton Abbey twist, Collins says that traditionally, in a well-to-do household, part of a lady’s dowry would be linens for the household, which would have her monogram. The silver, however, would have the gentleman’s monogram. The wisdom being, Collins has been told, that women were expendable and men were not.
Despite such lore, a woman’s monogram has always represented and celebrated her identity. After all, a monogram stays with someone his/her entire life. Even if a woman takes her husband’s name, she uses her maiden name monogram when corresponding with family and friends who knew her before she changed her name. (For social occasions as well as correspondence with new acquaintances, she uses her marital monogram.)
“A woman finds many schemes for its use [the monogram] in the marking of her underwear, table linens, etc.,” writes Clark in Social Stationery, “but its touch upon her stationery holds the greatest charm.”
Indeed, social stationery was the social media of the day, Collins says.
“All cultured correspondence would be through a letter, note or calling card. In an urban setting, mail came three to four times a day. Someone of means could write a letter in the morning with an invitation to dinner and receive a response that same day.”
The monogram would not continue to be a symbol of wealth and notoriety forever. With the rise of the middle class during the Victorian era came the rise of domestic inspiration, and mass production allowed for affordability. More and more people found themselves with expendable income.
“When I grew up,” Collins recalls. “It was regular for anyone to have little monogrammed hankies from the 5 and Dime store.”
Despite its entrance into the mainstream, however, the monogram remains a romantic symbol of one’s identity.
One of the most memorable monograms Collins recalls is on a letter written by Lillie Langtry, a notorious actress during the Victorian era said to have had an affair with Prince Edward. Collins says she likes to fantasize about who designed the “most interesting” monogram.
“I like to think,” she quips, “that it was one of the queen’s stationers.”
Have a question about monograms? Email our Crane Concierge at firstname.lastname@example.org.