Text: Jennifer Boles

Although it might be a slight exaggeration, monograms are almost as old as time. Appearing on ancient Greek and Roman coins to honor rulers or signify places of minting, monograms also sometimes adorned ancient silver goods, such as plates, and jewelry, including signet rings. If there was one thing indicated by this early usage, it was that the use of monograms was mostly limited to the ruling and upper classes, which could afford such luxury items.

A more widespread use of monograms on domestic items began in the Middle Ages, but the styles of monograms used were not necessarily the initials-only designs that we are familiar with today. Usually a combination of initials and an aristocratic coat of arms or family crest, monograms were then typically applied to personal property to indicate ownership rather than for ornamentation. In 14th-century France, for example, household linens would be marked with a personalization of some kind using ink. French kings, on the other hand, had the distinction of having the only linens in France with embroidered markings, which typically included a fleur-de-lis, the traditional symbol of French royalty. Later, during Louis XIV’s reign, the king’s linen was embroidered with a crown and either two V’s, which indicated it belonged in the palace at Versailles, or a T, for the Grand Trianon chateau. By the 18th century, it was a common practice for nobility to have their linens inked or embroidered with family crests and monograms.

Glassware and silverware that was owned by the upper classes were sometimes etched or engraved with coats of arms and monograms. It was on porcelain, however, that monograms perhaps made the biggest splash. One style of chinaware that was made for such personalization was Chinese export armorial porcelain, which was fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries. So named for the coats of arms that typically adorned it, armorial porcelain could also feature the initials of the individual ordering it. European porcelain makers were also keen to customize designs for their clientele both in Europe and America, including George Washington, who ordered a set of French porcelain that was designed with GW positioned on a bed of clouds.

Tableware was not the only type of furnishing to be personalized with monograms. In aristocratic houses, stained glass windows might feature a shield with family crest and monogram, a design custom that dated back to medieval churches, while iron gates were also sometimes known to be emblazoned with a family monogram. Initials even found their way into furniture design. For her dressing room at Saint-Cloud, Marie Antoinette ordered a suite of furniture that included a chair whose top rail was carved with her initials and a fire screen whose panel was embroidered with her monogram, an intertwining MA formed from flowers.

By the mid-19th century, the use of monograms was adopted by the prosperous middle class, which finally had the means to imitate aristocratic customs. The difference, however, was that because they lacked coats of arms or family crests, aspirant individuals often made do with monograms that were comprised solely of their initials. That is not to say that the monogram designs lacked flair. Whether buying household items from a specialty shop or from one of the newly introduced department stores, 19th-century customers had an enticing array of monogram styles from which to choose. Although customized tableware remained an attractive option for monogramming, it was more often table and bed linens that were bedecked with the owner’s initials, a custom that continues to thrive today.

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