Today we are going to look at the fascinating world of monograms! First, let’s look at some definitions:

A Monogram is a motif made by overlapping or combining two or more letters to form one symbol. Monograms are often made by combining the initials of an individual or a company, used as recognizable symbols or logos. (reference link)

Acronyms are abbreviations formed from the initial components in a phrase or name. (reference link)

A Cypher is considered to be two or more letters that are not overlapped or combined. Don’t confuse it with cipher, which is when you substitute other letters or symbols to represent a letter, developing a "secret code" that can be read if you know the code. Ciphering also means to do math.

A Royal Cypher is a monogram-like symbol of a country’s reigning sovereign, typically consisting of the initials of the monarch’s name and title, often surmounted by a crown. (reference link)

A Logo is a graphic mark or emblem commonly used by commercial enterprises, organizations and even individuals to aid and promote instant public recognition. Logos are either purely graphic (symbols/icons) or are composed of the name of the organization (a logotype or wordmark). (reference link)

The History of a Monogram

The use of initials, either single or multiple letters, have been used for centuries for a variety of reasons. The earliest known use was on coins used by the Romans and the Greeks. There are examples dating back to the Theodosius II , 402-450.

For more examples and detailed information, you can visit this Coin Museum website.

Starting sometime in the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century) monograms became an accepted way to identify an artisan’s work. There has been very extensive research done on the signatures and monograms of artists. One example is this monogram for Albrecht Dürer. Albrecht lived from 1471 to 1528 and was a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg. (reference link) James Whistler was one artist who began using his initials "JW" to sign his paintings. By 1869 he had created a distinctive mark which he felt enhanced the paintings. The way in which he made his mark became an age identifying tool for collectors. This is one of the butterflies that he created from the J (the body) and W (the wings).

These marks were recognized by buyers and often required by trade organizations. John Castagno is perhaps the leading authority on artists’ monograms and marks and has published several extensive books on the subject.

The Christian church used monograms frequently, for example the 4th century "sigla" (chi-rio), was derived from the first two letters of Jesus Christ in Greek, I and X. IHS is a Christogram dating from the 3rd century, for the Greek spelling of Jesus, ΙΗΣ, short for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.

We can identify several companies by their monogram, acronym or logo. This is also called brand recognition. Can you identify these organizations and companies? I would imagine you will recognize the business, but may not really know the company’s name since we known them by their initials. (The names are given at the end of the newsletter!)


Who would have thought there would have been proper etiquette rules for monogram use, but there was. Initially, one- or two-letter monograms were the rule. Individual letters fit better on coins and wax sealing stamps. Then in the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901, three-letter monograms were in vogue. New rules had to be created so everyone could understand the monograms. The last name was the largest initial in the center of the monogram. The female’s first name initial went on the left and the male’s first name initial went on the right.

If you were using a monogram for a single person or on a specific item of clothing for a person (such as a man’s dress shirt) you would use the three letters of the name. The last name would be in the middle in the largest font. The first name initial was on the left and the middle initial was on the right.

Monograms were often used as a tool for marking ownership of linens. The household linens were usually taken to a central place to be washed and it was easy to mix them up. Liz Aull wrote an article for EMB Magazine (September 2005) entitled "Monograms: The Early Years." In this article she stated "Wealthy Americans believed that the sun in Holland and the West Indies was especially good for bleaching linens. They shipped them overseas to be ‘grassed’ – laid on fields to be bleached, dried and sanitized – and often had as many as 10 dozen sets monogrammed because of the lengthy travel time and possibility of getting someone else’s instead of theirs back."

Another use for monograms and initials was for identification and decoration on personal items such as hankies. It was hard to find the proper etiquette for initials on hankies. The few resources said that on a man’s handkerchief you would use a 3-letter monogram or the single letter of his last name. Whereas, on a woman’s hankie you should use the single letter of her first name.

Since Victorian times, people have done different things to the order of their names which have caused some problems when trying to purchase monogrammed gifts. There aren’t hard-and-fast rules, so did a survey to see what people considered the "appropriate" monogram for several circumstances. Here are a couple of examples from this website survey.

"John Taylor and Mary Blount are getting married. They have already decided that after the marriage they will both use John’s last name." Overwhelmingly the group decided the man’s first initial would go on the left, the woman’s on the right and the "T" of Taylor would be larger in the center. Notice that this is opposite from the Victorian "rule".

"Janice Barnes and Michael Dailey have announced their engagement. After their marriage they have chosen to blend their last names, and will be known as Janice and Michael Barnes-Dailey. What would their monogram look like?" Suggestions included using the two initials "BD" or "B-D", and "MB-DJ". However, "JBDM" was the most popular choice with the J and M in a smaller font.

Many people suggested asking the person or couple what their preference is. This brings up a very current example of why it is important to ask! Prince William and his bride Catherine would normally have a royal monogram of the initials of their first names with the royal name first, so it would be "WC". This caused a dilemma because "WC" means "water closet" or toilet in the United Kingdom. This would be a disaster. So, for the first time in history the spouse of the royal family member will be on the left. In addition, Catherine "Kate" Middleton is considered a commoner, so that really shows the importance of this change from "WC" to "CW". William’s monogram as a single man looked like the image shown on the right.

Here is the monogram used on the wedding china.

One thing for certain, personalized gifts have not gone out of style. Here are several books with project ideas for embroidery, Brazilian embroidery, embroidery on paper, and so much more!

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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“The following article was published by Nordic Needle in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their newsletter, visit A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA.”

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