— Life —

In Defense of Monograms and Other Bygone Traditions

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While shopping for antique and vintage pieces, I’m always surprised at the devaluation of anything with a monogram. Whether it’s an engraved piece of silver or an embroidered set of pillowcases, buyers often turn a cold shoulder towards items personalized for someone unknown and long dead. I feel differently about monograms. It’s a lost art, like letters written by quill. Just because an old letter is not addressed to you doesn’t mean it’s without value.

It’s the same with engraved objects. If in 1917, someone went to the trouble to personalize an object, then why wouldn’t you, in 2017, treasure it in a metaphysical sense, and do honor to the original gesture by chaperoning the object to its next destination?

I get starry-eyed about the days when monogrammed hairbrushes passed from grandmother to granddaughter; when determined matriarchs buried the family silver as Sherman galloped in; when Little Italy mobsters snorted coke out of engraved salt spoons brought to America by their Sicilian ancestors.

Author Margaret Atwood wrote, “Every recorded story implies a future reader.” I think of these words when I look at my walnut bowl with an engraved plaque that reads, “Mr. & Mrs. J.H. Gardener, a Token of Friendship and Esteem from Dr. G.J. Parks.” I hear a voice from the past, don’t you?

A collection of engraved pieces that I just can’t sell. I love the inscriptions. An appraiser once told me  these objects are also called “dedicatories.”

No one does this stuff anymore… unless you count mix tapes, but no one does that anymore either. And poorer we are for the lack of it.

And the mysterious names and dates? They’re enigmatic and mysterious! My friend, Wendy, has a bracelet she inherited from her grandmother. Every time she wears it, I covet its large engraved charms. The prettiest one says “May 4, 1956, A Date Never to Forget.” I asked Wendy about the significance of that day. “No clue,” said Wendy. “No one can figure out what the hell my grandma was trying to remember.”

A few years ago, I found the lovely sterling silver bottle opener (pictured above) engraved with an art-deco ‘H’ on one side and a date, 1-3-53, on the other. I intended it as a gift for our son, Henry, as he started college — a classy way to crack open a beer. Yes, I know, a very silly gift. College kids want the beer, not the tool to open the beer. But just before classes started, Henry announced that going forward, he would be using his middle name, Atticus.

So the bottle opener is in the shop, and now I’m looking for ‘A’s. Maybe you have one to sell me? I’m also considering ‘Fs,’ ‘Cs’ or an ‘SH’ because Atticus’s high school friends–who haven’t adopted to the new name–prefer to call him Fratticus, Catticus, Straw Hatticus.) Drop me an email. I’d be interested, and I promise not to judge you.

Photos by Renn Kuhnen.


5 Comments

  • Charlesñjoycee Silverman
    Reply Charlesñjoycee Silverman April 3, 2017 at 11:54 am

    I treasure monograms whether mine or not! Guess thats my born again Southern Jewish girl in me!

  • Reply Diana April 3, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    I, too, treasure my monogrammed items. When antiquing I look for monogrammed silver and linens–any monogram as long as it’s pretty.

  • Reply Brenda Coffee April 4, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    Love this post, Mithra! Isn’t it interesting that some kinds of furniture, art, antiques and jewelry are more valuable when we know the provenance? In my bedroom I have a handcrafted and hand painted–with a vinegar wash–dresser from the mid-1800’s. I bought it from a friend who owned an antique store in Comfort, Texas, a tiny town. The dresser was built by one of the original German settlers, who moved to the Texas Hill Country, as a gift for his wife. They’d probably be sad to know the 20-seomthing who inherited it, wasn’t at all interested in it. I’ve cherished it for 13 years. It was in the bedroom at the Little House, my home in the Hill Country. Now it’s here with me in my bedroom in the city. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Amy Welton April 5, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Oh, Mithra, you and I are similar in many ways! I love to wonder about the meaning behind a monogram. And Grandma would be proud of your writings and musings.

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