According to author Simon Garfield, “much of what one needs to know about the history and beauty of a font may be found in its ampersand.” Often regarded as a single character or glyph, the ampersand is actually a logogram representing the conjunction word “and,” and is actually two characters combined—the e and the t of the Latin “et.” The term ampersand being a conflation of the phrase “and per se and.” The term supposedly came into being when André-Marie Ampère began using the symbol in his publications, and people began referring to it as “Ampère’s and.”
The ampersand can be traced back to 1st century Roman cursive, in which the letters e and t were occasionally written together to form a ligature, while the modern italic ampersand is reminiscent of Renaissance cursive scripts. Regardless of the symbol’s 2000 year old roots, the ampersand remained a fairly unused symbol until the advent of the printing press in 1455.
It’s widely regarded that William Caslon cut the finest ampersand in the mid-1700s for the typeface we know as Caslon, but Claude Garamond’s italic ampersand is arguably the fanciest, clearest representation of the character’s origin—the combination of e and t from left to right. Both bear similarities and unique differences that set them apart, ensuring that one of the two will likely be the right fit for any type job. Caslon’s ampersand gives considerable weight to the e, using a capital of the letter, that cradles a smaller, calligraphic capital t within it’s counter. Garamond’s, on the other hand, favors lower case versions of both letters equal in height. The crossbar of the lower case e is gone, and replaced with an ascending, forward sloping stem that intersects the two letters. Both include a similar curled arm across the t, closely resembling an unfinished infinity symbol.
Historically, the ampersand has been reserved for use in the names of businesses (particularly all too many law firms) and titles in the entertainment industry such as film, television, and role playing and video games. What started out as a shorthand symbol in handwriting, prior to the advent of mechanical type, has for many years since been considered taboo within sentence form. The ampersand did experience a revival in shorthand usage, however, with the growth of mobile phone usage and text messaging in the late 20th century.
Possibly the greatest testament to the ampersand’s legacy came in 2010 when the Society of Typographic Aficionados released Coming Together, a font consisting of nearly 500 ampersands, each unique and contributed by nearly 400 designers. A worthy showing for our most charming character.
For more ampersand fun, check out The Ampersand, a blog dedicated to everything ampersand-related.