It was a little red billfold my Grandmama Norton gave me when I was eight that made me realize how special a gift personalized with a monogram can be. Each time I pulled my money out or, less frequently, put some money in, I noticed my shiny initials lined up in gold letters across the inside of my wallet: PFN — the initials that meant my name. They announced “This is mine.” And I was proud.
When I was in high school, my mother gave me a monogrammed purse. Carrying it, I was always careful to turn my initials outward so everyone could see them. That was the year monogrammed shirts and sweaters were in fashion, too. I was especially glad my initials didn’t come together as a word. You would have to pity Penelope Inez Gunther! A middle initial beginning with a vowel can either work for or against you. Kitten-like Catherine Ann Tuggle had it made.
Though these were my introductions to the charm of having one’s own initials placed on a personal possession, I have since learned that monogramming is not new. Also called service marks, monograms were originally placed on linens as a means of identification, and many household linens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were numbered as well as marked with initials. Woven by hand, linen was a symbol of family wealth, more valued than furniture, silver, or jewelry. Linens were something to be cherished, used with care, and protected.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, engraved seals as well as embroidery were used to designate to whom linens belonged. The seal was actually a stamp that applied the monogram onto the linen with liquid dye. One fourteenth century recipe documented this dye as being made by boiling grease, oil, and vinegar together.
With the rise of individualism in the nineteenth century, the embroidered monogram, especially on bed sheets, became popular. Imitating the long-established practice of royalty and nobility personalizing linen with their crests and coats of arms, the aspiring middle class put their initials on just about everything: linen, crystal, silver, and china.
Throughout the nineteenth century, all the household linens — sheets, pillowcases, napkins, tablecloths, towels — in a bride’s trousseau were embroidered with monograms. If the trousseau was prepared during the engagement period, the future husband’s initial was put in front of the bride’s. If prepared in the bride’s youth, her own initials were embroidered onto the linen, signifying the personal property she would bring to the marriage. Representing wealth and position, the linens were proudly displayed for the guests to view at the time of the wedding.
The continuing popularity of monograms gave rise to models and books showcasing designs of varying complexity, reflecting the various periods and artistic movements of the times. Designs to embroider either by hand or machine could be found in department store catalogs until just after World War I. White-on-white monograms on linen were standard while color was seldom used before 1925.
But the appearance of fabrics less lasting than the sturdy fiber of linen, plus the trend to change household “linens” more frequently according to fashion, led to the decline of creating trousseaus. This also resulted in the decline of embroidering monograms.
Yet today, more and more I realize I am not alone in seeking beautifully monogrammed antiques. More and more I notice opportunities becoming available for having new merchandise monogrammed as well. To this day when I encounter a monogram, whether old or newly made, it always speaks to me. It says what my little red billfold said when my Grandmama Norton gave it to me: These are the initials that mean my name. This is mine. And I am proud.