The History of Monograms

By Terry Quillen


“Her underwear … were especially made for her by the nuns in the convent of St Claire. ... I embroidered this case for her myself, and I keep it here always.” – Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca


Who can forget the mean-spirited housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, from Alfred Hitchcock’s dark film Rebecca? She tortured the shy and dowdy new Mrs. de Winter with the memory of Rebecca, the glamorous first Mrs. De Winter, by evoking Rebecca’s finery – including a lingerie case that Mrs. Danvers had monogrammed for her (photo, right). In the final scene of Rebecca, we see the hand-stitched R being consumed by flames, along with Mrs. Danvers.


While a woman of Rebecca's station might have had her embroidery done for her by nuns or a creepy housekeeper, most young women embroidered their own trousseau of days gone by. They marked the lingerie and linens that they would bring with them as a new bride.


(In the photo, left, is a group of hand-monogrammed linens available at Gaslamp Too. At left, towels in Booth T-193; upper right, a European pillow sham from France in Showcase T-618; lower right, French metis linen sheet in Booth T-108.)


The monogram is part and parcel of the elegance and etiquette of Western culture. Like many such things, the tradition originated with the French. Monograms appeared at least as early as the 17th century, when Louis XIV had an official monogram. Two generations of royalty later, Marie Antoinette, also favored monograms. In the photo, below right, the unmistakable monogram of Marie Antoinette is seen on a balcony railing at the Petit Trianon, one of several palaces on the grounds of Versailles.


The bridal monogram did not appear until the mid-1800s, when the French ladies magazine, La Mode Illustrée, began publishing alphabets for stitching. This phenomenon was further illustrated in a special edition of Victoria magazine on monograms by writer Robin Molbert, who is a collector and dealer of fine French textiles: “In an era that predates, by centuries, the invention of television and the computer, women's social networks existed around the hearth, with journals open, and needles poised. ... The fact that nearly every Frenchwoman learned to sew and do fine embroidery at a very tender age meant that beauty was not dictated by wealth or stature.”  


The monogram is not just reserved for linens. Brilliant examples have appeared over the years in stationery, architecture, garden layout, bookbinding, silver cigarette cases, and even playing cards. In the photo, left, are some enchanting examples of old monogram styles at GasLamp that would make treasured gifts. At top left, there is a planter marked with “L” from Booth B-115. Going clockwise, there are two framed prints of old monograms that spell David and Dora, both in Booth S-544. (Other names are available.)


Some of the finest workmanship in the art of the monogram appears at the dinner table. We have all seen engraved sterling place settings, but intricately-painted gold monograms fired onto bone china are rarer. Another French tradition is the silver napkin ring. Each family member would have his or her own initialed band to keep track of individual napkins from one meal to the next. In the photo, right, there is a china butter pat marked CH Pillivuyt et Cie, Paris, which is located at Booth B-108 at GasLamp; the personalized napkin rings are from eBay.


In centuries past these beautiful monograms were, naturally, stitched by hand. Some embroiderers used stencils, like the one pictured at left, to transfer a design onto fabric.

This antique copper monogram stencil from Germany includes monogram letters and scalloping for the edge of an embroidered piece (photo courtesy of S-J Designs).


(Photo, right, more hand-embroidered linens. Clockwise from upper left: a towel with Asian Art Deco lettering, from Gaslamp Booth B-108; a hem-stitched French sheet made of hemp at GasLamp Booth W-101; a French linen night dress case embroidered with the words “Bonne Nuit,” or Good Night), from GasLamp Too Booth T-108.)


Today, monograms are popular, but are not frequently done by hand – and they are more popular in some geographical regions than others. It has been said that monograms are a dead giveaway that one is from the South. The Southern on the Inside blog reports: “Any girl whos lived in New York long enough has realized the one essential thing the city that has everything doesnt have: convenient places to have items monogrammed.”


History tells us, of course, that we Southerners do not hold the patent on monograms – even if some modern-day belles slap them on everything in sight, including the rear window of the car. Taste notwithstanding, we are blessed that this fine art has been so well preserved in old silver lovingly polished and linens stored away with sprigs of lavender. The workmanship of the monogram -- from the hands of a master engraver or a young girl anticipating a proposal -- is a treasure of the ages.




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