Of Ciphers and Monograms

Though the terms cipher and monogram are often used interchangeably today, they are, in fact, two distinct classes of alphabetic initial design and presentation. Few today know the difference between them, but most members of the Regency aristocracy, gentry and upper classes would have known the difference, as would have most printers, artists and craftsmen of that period. Regency authors may find it useful to know the difference should one or the other be needed in an upcoming tale of romance.

Ciphers and monograms in Regency England . . .

The term cipher has an old and circuitous history which has endowed it with a host of meanings over the course of the centuries. The word has its roots in Old French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Arabic and even Sanskrit. Among the meanings of the word which are germane here are a symbolic character, a secret or disguised manner of writing, and an intermixture of letters, especially initials. On the other hand, the term monogram has a much more linear history. It has its origins in the Latin word monogrammum, meaning single and letter, though it later came to mean multiple letters or characters combined into one unique symbol or emblem.

Ciphers date back to ancient times, and the earliest were often a single letter or symbol by which a person verified their correspondence and/or identified their products and their property. Rulers used them to mark the proclamations and coins which were issued in their name. These ancient marking ciphers gave rise to what eventually became the signet ring. Over time, as more and more people became literate, a single letter or character would no longer suffice as a cipher. Instead, they began to be made up of two or more letters, often entwined together into a distinct emblem, each of which was unique to the person who used it. In some instances, the initials were so thoroughly interlaced that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. Nevertheless, the united design was known and understood by those who knew the owner and were familiar with their cipher. This may have given rise to the earliest meaning of the term cipher as a secret or disguised manner of writing.

By the Middle Ages, in most of Europe, including Britain, many among the aristocracy and the high-born were armigerous, meaning they had the right to a coat of arms. Those families which were entitled to bear arms typically had a unique visual design created which symbolized their family history and/or achievements, which they handed down from one generation to the next. The members of these families typically used their coat of arms, or just the family crest, as an identifying emblem. However, the laws in most countries, including Britain, forbade anyone who was not of noble birth to use a coat of arms or a family crest. But there were scores of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen who needed a symbol by which they could identify themselves on their correspondence and their products. Since there were no laws regulating the use of ciphers, most of these people adopted a cipher made up of their initials and/or the initials of their business or company in lieu of a coat of arms.

Even before the Middle Ages came to a close, many ciphers had developed into monograms. There is a distinct difference between a cipher and a monogram. A cipher is made up of a combination of two or more letters which are interlaced with one another to form a single motif. A monogram goes one step further. Though a monogram is also a combination of two or more letters which are woven together, in the case of a monogram, the design is such that no part of any letter can be separated from the whole without destroying the emblem. One of the features of a monogram is that it uses the least possible number of lines to render the design. The letter forms in a cipher are not dependent upon one another, each letter is still clearly separate, even if they are laid over one another in some places. If one letter is removed from a cipher, the other letters are still legible. But the letter forms in a monogram are so closely interwoven that all of the parts of the letters must be present to support the entire unique motif and enable the complete design to be read as a set of initials.

After the introduction of the printing press and the development of type fonts, monograms soon became popular with printers, who developed their own special designs to mark the books and other materials they printed. Even before the Renaissance, a number of artists and other craftsmen also began to adopt the use of a unique monogram to identify their work. A monogram was not only artistic, it took much less time and space to inscribe than a full signature. It was not just painters, sculptors and printers who used monograms, so did engravers and book-binders, gold and silver smiths, potters and ceramicists, carvers and stone masons. In those years, there were also some people, including members of the royalty and aristocracy, who could neither read nor write, who adopted a personal monogram. These people learned to draw their monogram on documents, in place of a full signature.

Through the seventeenth century, as commercial and international trade began to expand, more and more merchants and traders began to adopt a unique monogram by which they marked their goods. Most European/Christian merchants included some form of a cross in their monograms. This was done not only to invoke the protection of their God against catastrophes, but it soon became a definitive means by which to distinguish their goods from those of the non-Christian traders of the Levant. Many such commercial monograms took on a meaning similar to that of trademarks today, assuring customers of the quality of the goods which carried them. In fact, over the centuries, some of those early commercial monograms eventually became the traditional trademark of the company for which they were created.

By the eighteenth century, many people among the merchant and middle classes began to use their monograms in a manner similar to the coat of arms or family crest used by members of the nobility and gentry. In fact, for a number of people, ornate monograms became a status symbol which they believed held power just short of that of a coat of arms. It was very common to use a monogram as a seal or on a signet ring. They were also embroidered on household linens and clothing, not to mention applied to family china and silver service pieces. Monograms might also be seen on personal objects, including jewelery and accessories, such as watches and brooches. As personal stationery became more common, many people had their writing paper monogrammed. Book owners typically had their monogram stamped into the bindings of their books. Those who could afford vehicles usually had their monogram painted on the doors of their carriages or coaches, and also embroidered on the hammercloth that covered the coachman’s box. Some of the most affluent even had their monogram inscribed on their homes or other buildings.

Typically, those who could afford it commissioned a personal monogram design from a artist, most often a draughtsman or an engraver. Those who could not afford a professionally designed monogram might design their own. It must be noted that some of these "monograms" were actually ciphers. It requires strong design skills to be able to create a motif in which the letters are combined so that they are all part of one another and cannot be separated. When the letters are simply interlaced together, but can be separated and still be recognizable, the motif is a cypher, not a monogram. Nevertheless, a well-designed and elegant cypher can be quite attractive and just as effective as a professionally designed monogram.

From the eighteenth century, right through the Regency, there were traditional conventions which were typically followed when designing monograms or ciphers. Often, the motif was a combination of the person’s two, three or even four initials, depending upon the number of names with which they were christened. For men’s monograms, the initial for the surname was almost always made slightly larger, bolder, or in some other way made to stand out against the other initials in the design. There were slightly different conventions for women, depending upon their age and whether they were single or married. Most single young women had a monogram which consisted of only the initial of their first name, since they were expected to marry and eventually acquire a surname other than that with which they were born. Oftentimes, the monogram for a single young woman consisted of an ornate version of the letter of her first name, entwined with a symbol or character which meant something to that woman. In other cases, a young woman simply had a cipher, that is, an ornate or artistic version of the initial for her first name. Older single women, that is, those considered to be on the shelf and unlikely to marry, typically had a monogram which consisted of the initial of their surname only, perhaps interlaced with a symbol of significance to them. However, there were some older women who had a monogram which was comprised of all of the initials of their full name.

There were instances when a person might have to commission a new monogram or cipher design due to some important change in their life. Newly married women would usually have a new monogram designed for them upon the occasion of their marriage. These monograms were generally comprised of the initials of the woman’s first and new surname. However, there was a strong convention which forbade an engaged woman from using the monogram or cipher which represented her married name until after the wedding. Not only was it considered bad form, there are indications that in some regions, it was considered bad luck. This seems to have applied to the use of such a monogram on stationery or other items which would be seen by others before the ceremony. Before the wedding, an engaged woman could have her monogram embroidered on new personal linens or applied to other items she would be using only after her marriage, without incurring any censure. Men were less likely to have to commission a new monogram due to life-changing events, but it did happen on rare occassions. The most common was when a man hyphenated or changed his surname name in order to be eligible for an inheritance or other significant gift or event.

Though many among the middle class were using monograms or ciphers by the Regency, there were also quite a number among the aristocracy and gentry who had their own monogram or cipher. Second sons and the daughters of the nobility often commissioned their own distinct monogram or cipher. However, if they were a member of an armigerous family, they were entitled to use the family crest, and that crest was almost always incorporated into their personal monogram. The same conventions held true in these cases. Gentlemen usually had a monogram made up of all of the initials of their full name, while young unmarried ladies used only the first initial of their first name, and older unmarried ladies used the initial of their surname. When a noble lady married, she would need a new monogram, and, if she married another member of the nobility, her new monogram would include not only the initial of her new surname, it would also include the family crest of her husband’s family. If a noble lady married a commoner, she would retain the use of her own family’s crest in her monogram. As with all other monograms or ciphers for newly married ladies, she should not use her new monogram publicly until her wedding ceremony had taken place.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know the difference between a cipher and a monogram, and how they were typically used, you will be able to include them in your stories with much greater accuracy. Perhaps one of the characters in a romance, maybe even the heroine, is a artist who supplements her income by designing monograms and ciphers. Could it be that she meets the hero when he escorts his sister to her studio to review the monogram she has designed? A particularly rude and snooty character might take the heroine to task because she incorrectly calls a monogram a cipher, or vice versa. How will the hero come to her defense? Mayhap a spiteful and vindictive rival sends out thank you notes for wedding gifts, purportedly from the heroine, using the engaged lady’s monogram for her married name before the wedding. How will the scandal be resolved? Are there other ways in which a monogram or cipher might embellish an upcoming romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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