The Modern Monogram: A Historic Survey of Ciphers, Marks and Monograms

Figure 1 – Illustration of a monogram in which the right stroke of the “V” depends entirely on the stem of the “R”. Monograms, such as this, are designs in which major elements are common to at least two initials. Ciphers are designs composed of one or more initial. However, for the purpose of this article, the more popular term “monogram” refers to both monograms and ciphers. These initials stand for Victoria Regina, Queen Victoria, and the symbol is officially considered a Royal Cipher.

In my business, Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer LLC, I create monograms and ciphers for clients and spend a good deal of time looking for historic inspiration. This article shares some of my research.

It is likely that modern monograms originated with the beginning of type, about 1450. This is when printers, print collectors and artists began creating marks identifying that their work, or collection, was distinct from everyone else’s.

Figure 2 – Self-portrait, Albrecht Dürer, 1500. Dürer was a prolific artist and engraver, his monogram is at left.

Figure 3 – A monogram entry in Les Marques de collections de dessins & d’estampes, first published in 1921 by Frits Lugt. Les Marques documents marks made by artists, collections and collectors identifying drawings and prints as their property. It is important to note that the early dates indicate this entry and most of the others were originally drawn by hand.

As mercantilism and international trade developed in the 1600s and 1700s, consumerism grew.

Figure 4 – One can imagine the patron commissioning this painting also ordering a custom riding saddle with, perhaps, his monogram on it. The Allegory of Painting (c. 1666–68)—Johannes Vermeer, via Wikimedia Commons.

Holland led the way with intercontinental trade providing an economic boom in which the wealthy merchant class, burgeoning middle class, and visual arts flourished. Great Britain also championed expansionism, as did Continental and American concerns.

[Related: The Visual Culture of Color: A Brief History of Color Matching Systems | A Glossary of Engraving Terms]

By the 1700s, elaborate monograms were advertised as added value on goods produced for those in new economic strata with expendable income, such as the international merchant class. As the century progressed, monograms became status symbols emulating royalty.

Figure 5 – Detail from A New Book of Cyphers, More Compleat & Regular than any ever Publish’d. Wherein the whole Alphabet (twice over) Confifting of 60 Cyphers, Is variously Chang’d, interwoven & reversed. Very Entertaining to ye Curious, & afeful to all forts of ARTIFICERS. [sic]. —Samuel Sympson, London. Publication date 1750. 

Through the Victorian era, customization for anyone but the wealthy and growing middle class remained unaffordable.

Figure 6 – Page from The Lincoln Crest & Monogram Album, c. late-1800s. For those able to afford it, collecting other people’s monograms became a competitive Victorian sport, primarily in England, but also the Continent, and America.

Figure 7 – Close-up of page from The Lincoln Crest & Monogram Album. Packets of royal ciphers, crests, and seals were marketed by commercial printers and sold for collecting in fancy albums.

Figure 8 – Monogram and crest collecting was popular through the end of the 19th century but waned with the advent of the First World War in 1914.

The gloss of prosperity culminating in the Gilded Age remained until the First World War when global economies crashed. Curiously, the United States social stationery industry was able to sustain gains between, and after, World War I and II simply because engraving monograms provided a small but viable profession for independent-minded Americans.

Figure 9 – Engraved social stationery monogram style sheet ca. early-20th century.

Figure 10 – 1937 high school commencement invitation, Lyons, KS. Mid-20th century, monogram styles such as this and Figure 11 were commonly used on personal stationery, class rings, and graduation ephemera.

Figure 11 – Hand engraved monograms for personal use ca. mid-20th century.

Figure 12 – The Jewelry Engravers Manual, R. Allen Hardy & John J. Bowman, 1954. Although these styles were intended to instruct hand-engraving monograms, they appear the same as monograms generated digitally today.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, monograms remained a popular symbol of prosperity for a growing, post-WW II, American middle class.

Figure 13 – Hand engraved social stationery monograms ca. 1940s to 1960s, New Orleans.

Figure 14 – Hand drawn pencil sketches for engraving social stationery monograms ca. 1970s, Noel Martin, Covington, LA.

Today, monograms—and ciphers—are ubiquitous parts of visual culture, seen on costly handbags, bumper stickers, and inexpensive T-shirts.

Figure 15 – A quick Google search shows many monograms and, to my trained eye, many styles that look quite similar.

Today, monograms and ciphers can easily be created—free—by software, sometimes used only to sell commodities.

Figure 16 – Free monogram-generator from Mark & Graham, part of the Williams-Sonoma retail giant.

As a stationer, working with and studying marks as I have for decades, I find this accessibility ironic. Monograms, once drawn by-hand to identify, in a discrete manner, personal property, has become merely added decoration on it.


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