Prospective brides take note: Even for couples without a royal title, monograms can tell a story. They suggest who we are or want to be; put forth our views on marriage, tradition, and individual identity; and do wonderful things for linens, writing paper, and silver flatware.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the monogram as "a design or mark consisting of two or more letters intertwined"; other sources insist that one letter must form part of another as they weave together. Those in the monogram business are more inclusive. To them, a monogram is a combination of initials, intertwined or otherwise, or a single decorative letter like Henry VIII's H.
Above, Elena Keating's maiden-name initial (H for Henderson) enlivens napkins she selected for her trousseau. Both her and her husband's initials (BK for Brian Keating) head up the wedding invitation, while after-marriage goodies like a julep cup, the couple's note cards, and a glass goblet proclaim the amalgamation of their lives.
By Henry's time, the tradition of monogramming was already centuries old. Early Greek coins bore the decorative initials of rulers or towns. In medieval Europe, not every ruler could write. "Their signature was their initials, coat of arms, coronet, and the like, intricately carved so it couldn't be copied, and then pressed into wax," says Joy Lewis of Mrs. John L. Strong Fine Stationery in New York City. Modern monograms, says Edward Wawrynek, a vice president of Tiffany and Company, are "a middle-class response to such heraldic emblems."
Tradition calls for a woman to use her maiden name on most monograms. In theory, she was meant to have always had stationery, for instance, so the initials on it would be hers. The same applies to linens. "Traditionally, it's inappropriate to include the husband's initial, although some brides can't bear to leave it out," says Carolina Donadio of Leron, a seventy-five-year-old linens emporium on Madison Avenue in New York City. "Even old married ladies generally use their maiden initial." Sheets, towels, napkins, and so forth are considered part of a woman's trousseau -- assembled before she knows whom she will marry, and passed down from mother to daughter. Silver flatware, on the other hand, is apparently male territory: "If it's a one-letter monogram, it's the married initial," says Wawrynek. "With three letters, it's the initial of the husband's first name, that of his surname (slightly larger), and then the bride's first initial." Monogramming stemware has no protocol; there are no accepted rules about which initials to pick.
For most women, simply deciding whether and how to monogram raises questions. "When we ask, 'Are you taking your husband's name?' " says Lewis, "often, they haven't decided yet. Monogramming is a rite of passage, a real identity crisis." One woman might use her married name on everything; another might select some combination of her initials and her husband's initials, and still others choose to ignore monogramming traditions altogether.
A Pictorial Monogram
The monogram on Martha Kostyra Stewart's distinctive stationery -- an engraved seventeenth-century cornucopia design she discovered in an old book and paired with simple, embossed initials (below) -- looks wonderful as white-on-white embroidery near the opening of her American-style pillowcase (above) and at the center of the return on a duvet cover (above). Embroidered initials alone (on the smaller pillowcase, at left) look sleek -- and they cost less, too.
In choosing a flatware monogram, you'll need to stick to something appropriate to the style you have chosen -- no Art Deco letters for a Georgian pattern, or vice versa. As Kim Harwood, manager of James Robinson, a New York City store that sells antique silver, jewelry, glass, and porcelain, points out, "Any monogram is going to change the look of your pattern. That's why we do a lot of engraving on the back."
Some letters don't work with certain monogram styles, notes Wawrynek. If nothing seems exactly right, engraving departments can often come up with something new.
The Etiquette of the Table
Choose a simple, classic pattern, and your silver flatware can take almost any kind of monogram. A pyramid of three initials (above) suits the slim handle of Tiffany and Company's "Faneuil" pattern, while three script letters (facing away from the diner) spread out across the gentle swell of Tiffany's "King William." Initials placed sideways echo the linear design of Tiffany's "Hamilton" and also the position of the knife blade. Placing a monogram discreetly on the back of each piece of silver leaves the integrity of Tiffany's "Hampton" intact. One initial may look best when space is at a premium.
Antique butter knives were found engraved with the right initial and made a perfect shower gift, but any unadorned set can be embellished to your specifications.
Etched gothic initials enliven simple tumblers.
There are no rules of etiquette with regard to glass stemware. Monograms range widely in shapes and sizes, from the simple B at left to the elaborate decorative cipher on the tallest glass
Embroidered monograms can be customized, as well. Porthault linens in New York City can create a monogram based on one of hundreds of existing styles. Brides tend to go for white on white, which is also the most popular overall -- either hand-embroidered or machine-stitched. Special linen patterns often have their own complementary monogram design, with initials worked into delicate lacework or cutwork, or embroidered twelve inches in diameter and surrounded by flowers and cherubs. Just remember that whatever you choose, you're going to see a lot of it -- in the center of the return on your sheets (where the top sheet turns over), the center of the bedspread, at the open ends of American-style pillowcases, and at the top center of French-style ones.
From Linen to Terry Cloth
If you've discovered antique linen hand towels already embroidered with one or all of your initials, consider having the monogram copied on your bath towels (above).
On dinner napkins, place your monogram either in the corner or dead center -- just make sure you fold accordingly.
Smaller cocktail napkins may look neater with one initial -- especially if you use colored embroidery. The initial P adorns a late-eighteenth-century French handkerchief.
Personalized stationery is a vital part of wedding planning, and Matthew Flood of Dempsey and Carroll, stationery engravers in New York City, finds that most people still pick traditional "black on ecru with a 'flourishy' script monogram" for their thank-you notes and official correspondence. After the wedding, he adds, "they let their artistic side take over." Think Gothic Revival, Art Deco, or perhaps Jeffersonian simplicity. Or don't stop at initials. "One couple loved trout fishing," says Lewis, "so they crowned their initials with a leaping trout. And I remember we did a wreath of sugarcane with initials inside it for people called 'Sugar.' "
Some say monogramming is classic and ever-present; others say it is not as common as it once was. What is certain is that those who choose monograms tend to appreciate tradition and have an eye on the future. "They have great pride in family," says Donadio, "and want to pass things down."
Although women traditionally used their maiden names on stationery, modern etiquette allows many variations on the choice of initials. His and her initials (above) are separated only by a tiny star and are united under an embossed symbol. The monograms GAF and MMM may include the first initials of both members of a couple or refer only to the bride -- your correspondents will know who's who. Most of these examples are engraved with a metal plate; the folded sheet with DRM was made by letterpress, which creates a luxurious, textured feel.
More Letterpress Monograms
The initials of the couple's respective surnames, made to resemble those in illuminated manuscripts, decorate the "gates" of their wedding invitation, while the initials of their two first names add beauty and texture to thank-you notes.
Graphic designer Nancy Sharon Collins chose her first, middle, and married initials for her monogram.