What is a monogram?
(an excerpt from the gorgeous book, The Art of the Monogram by Cynthia Brumback)
A monogram, by literal definition, is a combination of letters, usually two or three, which are intertwined or overlapped to represent an individual, municipality,company, or kingdom. Yet, that definition does not begin to capture the essence of the monogram. What is the true meaning of a monogram, this basic form of personal expression that has remained a social constant throughout the Western world for nearly 3,000 years? A monogram is a connection. It links a ruler to his people, a brand to its customer, a bride to a groom, one generation of a family to another, an individual to her future. Monograms connect us to another time and place, to loved ones past and present, and to what we find essential in our own lives.
Royals created the passion for the monogram, and throughout history people have embraced monograms as a way to elevate their everyday lives, but the impressive history of the monogram dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. The earliest known evidence of monograms is found in 6th century B.C. Roman coins, which were marked with the ruler’s initials to authenticate and legitimize them. The most enduring monograms, known as the sacred monograms, are the Chi-Rho, formed from the first two Greek letters of ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, meaning Christ, and the intertwined IHS, an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator or Jesus, Savior of Mankind.
The king most often credited for establishing the monogram is Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne’s military conquests were publicly marked with his monogram, a symbol that was understood to communicate power and dominance across the differing languages and alphabets of the time.
From the days of Charlemagne through the late 1600s, a monogram was a symbol of the powerful. Royalty and military leaders used their initials to form a personal brand to remind others of their position and influence in society. Monograms were used to authenticate official documents, mark government buildings,and to identify objects belonging to the ruler in power. During the Middle Ages, the development of the monogram also had a parallel path as it became used in artistic, commercial, and religious arenas. Artists,including painters, engravers and ceramicists, utilized, the royal way of marking, and took advantage of technological advancements and a universal alphabet to sign their works. Albrecht Duhrer, a German engraver, printmaker, and painter, used his “AD” to sign his works, and is one of the most well known examples from this time. Eighteenth century Wedgwood & Bentley intaglios are also early examples of artist’s monograms. The monograms of printers during the Middle Ages helped to identify and date early printed works, such as books. Commercially, “merchant’smarks” were often used, consisting of the storeowner’s initials and a relevant symbol. These merchant’s marks are often found on the underside of porcelain, where you see not only the identity of the manufacturer but also the monogram of the company that sold it.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, economic growth and the aesthetic trends of the Victorian Era, combined with the development of America, created new groups of prosperous people who had the means and social aspirations to adorn their personal and household possessions with monograms. During this period, the practice of monogramming was associated with wealth in addition to power. Monogramming was also synonymous with creativity, though to a lesser extent, since many artists and craftsmen signed their work with their initials.
Monogramming came in and out of vogue throughout the 20th century. The popularity of personalization often reflected the global political andeconomic climate. Before World War II, monograms were popular and harmonious with many homemaking and personal style trends. It was essential to have your clothing and accessories monogrammed, especially in the early 1900s and again in the 1920s, a time of great prosperity. During the Great Depression and later World War II, the need to embellish one’s belongings with initials waned and was reserved for special occasions or for those who were talented enough to be able to monogram their own items. After World War II, monogramming reemerged as an important symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, representing a woman’s performance as both housewife and mother. At that time, it was perceivedthat a woman who truly cared about her husband and family made sure their home was well stocked with monogrammed belongings.
Today, 21st-century technology has made monogramming affordable and accessible to almost everyone. You no longer need to be an artisan to monogram. While aspirational tendencies still influence people’s desire, monogramming today is a personal creative expression, often having very little to do with social position or wealth. In this fast-paced,mass-produced world, consumers are using monograms to create an individual style. Frequently, adding a personal touch is a much-loved design tool, with monogrammed household accessories and furnishings featured regularly in magazines and catalogs. The technology influence can also be seen in the multitude of personal necessities to be monogrammed for devices, such as laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. Adding your personal touch to these items is certainly a style statement, but once again your initials mark and protect your important and expensive possessions.