Miscellany № 72: sections and shillings

It’s January, 1776. You’re a printer in Delaware, one of thirteen restive American colonies chafing against British rule. The Continental Congress, the colonies’ nascent collective government, has recently passed an act creating its own currency and you’ve been tasked with creating Delaware’s issue of banknotes.1 This is your response:

4-shilling banknote issued in 1776 by Delaware Colony
4-shilling banknote issued in 1776 by Delaware Colony. (Image courtesy of National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.)

Bearing the incongruous declaration that the Delaware pound was created “in the 15th Year of the Reign of His Majesty George the IIId”, this 4-shilling note is one of a plethora of “Continental” banknotes issued from 1775 onwards to bankroll the American Revolution. Today, we’d call these Continental notes a fiat currency — that is, a monetary system whose value is managed by a central bank, rather than being vested in a precious commodity such as silver or gold — but Revolutionary-era America was not quite ready for this financial innovation. The colonial governments declared that their Continental dollars (or Continental pounds, as Delaware called them) were backed by future tax revenues, but a jittery populace was unconvinced and the value of paper notes, relative to hard currency such as Spanish silver dollars, dropped five hundredfold in only six years.2 Nor was this the only problem undermining the new currency.

Let’s take a look again at the note above. It may lack the “To Counterfeit, is DEATH” slogan printed on some other Continental notes,3 but that doesn’t mean it would have presented much of a challenge for a skilled counterfeiter.4 Forgers had access to much of the same technology used to produce the notes, such as movable type and copperplate engraving, and that made paper money an easy target. The security measures available to the institutions that issued banknotes were limited to such things as hand-cut type ornaments and detailed engravings, all of which made copying a note a time-consuming process. Some states reissued notes on a yearly basis, with each year’s design distinct from the last, in an effort to stay ahead of the forgers. As long as the time it took to copy a note made it uneconomical for a counterfeiter to do so, that denomination was safe; the instant it had been copied, it was dead in the water.5

Now, our Delaware printer was not exactly a security expert. The engraved panels surrounding the note’s central text might have kept a forger at bay for some time, but the text itself is woefully undistinguished. Up at the top is a sort of cargo-cult attempt at using type ornaments to discourage copying: two section signs and a pilcrow (§ ¶ §) stand sentry at either side of the banknote’s handwritten serial number. Not the most unusual characters, nor the most difficult to copy.

All this spelled disaster for the Continental currency. Unmoored from a silver or gold standard and woefully easy to copy, by 1781 Continental banknotes were barely worth the paper they were printed on. They were, in the parlance of the day, “not worth a Continental”.4 It was not until 1792, when the first U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia to produce gold, silver and copper coins, that the States’ common currency began to settle on an even keel — and the glorious Continental banknote, earnest, inadequate pilcrows and all, was no more.6

Many thanks to Jason Black, who tweets at @p2p_editor, for his original tweet about all this. Also, you can see many more fascinating images of Continental banknotes at Eric Grundhauser’s article at Atlas Obscura, “The Ornate Charm of American Currency from the 1700s”.

Continental Congress, 1774–1781,” U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian ↩︎
F. F. McLeod, “The History of Fiat Money and Currency Inflation in New England from 1620 to 1789,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 12, pp. 57-77, 1898. ↩︎
E. Grundhauser, “The Ornate Charm of American Currency from the 1700s,” Atlas Obscura, 2016. ↩︎
Colonial and Continental Currency: A New Nation’s Currency,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2016. ↩︎
J. Lynch, “The Golden Age of Counterfeiting,” Colonial Willamsburg, vol. Summer, 2007. ↩︎
Money in Colonial Times,” Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia ↩︎

More on The Book

Publication of The Book is still a few months away (if you haven’t circled August 23 on your calendar with a fat red marker pen, I urge you to do so right now), but I thought it might be nice to take a closer look at the book itself, both inside and out.

David High's cover for The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time. (W. W. Norton, August 2016.)
David High’s cover for The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time. (W. W. Norton, August 2016.)

First, David High’s cover.* The image above is a rendering rather than the real thing, but the finished article should be quite something. Unlike Shady Characters, there’s no jacket here: the boards and binding tape (handily identified by one of the many explanatory captions set in Zuzana Licko’s Mrs Eaves) are deliberately exposed to reveal how the book is put together. The title, subtitle, publisher’s mark and other accompanying text are stamped onto the cover, rather than printed, in a neat echo of traditional metal-on-leather techniques. That title, incidentally, is set in Paul Renner’s evergreen Futura, as it was on the American hardback edition of Shady Characters; bonus points go to anyone who can identify the typeface used for the vertically-aligned “THE” next to the word “BOOK”.

Judith Abbate's design for the interior of The Book, as composited by Brad Walrod.
Judith Abbate’s design for the interior of The Book, as composited by Brad Walrod.

Next is Judith Abbate’s splendid interior design, as composited by Brad Walrod. The first page of the introduction gives you a feel for just how rich the text is: it’s set in Robert Slimbach’s Adobe Jenson Pro Light, a modern revival of the work of French printer Nicolas Jenson, and is printed in the same black-and-red colour scheme used for Shady Characters.

There is much more to it than that, of course: the seventy-odd images that accompany the text, of which I hope to show you more later, will be printed in full colour; the book will be sewn rather than glued, which should make it a more pleasurable read and a hell of a lot more relevant to its content; and it even comes complete with some cut-out-and-keep templates for teaching yourself the ins and outs of different folding schemes. That said, if you like what you see here, you can order The Book in the USA from W. W. Norton, Amazon.com, Indiebound or Powell’s. In the rest of the world, order from Amazon.co.uk, The Book Depository or Waterstones.

Update: in a happy coincidence, the first printed copies of The Book arrived today at the W. W. Norton’s London office — here are a few shots of the finished book!

Cover of The Book
Cover of The Book.
Title page of The Book
Title page of The Book.
Page spread from The Book
Page spread from The Book.
David can usually be found at highdzn.com, but his site is currently unavailable. ↩︎

№ ⸮ ‽ ℔ ⁊ ⸿  — or, a cavalcade of characters

At the heart of Shady Characters’ recent redesign are the text and display typefaces of Satyr and Faunus, both designed by Sindre Bremnes of Norway’s Monokrom type studio. Shady Characters, of course, is all about unusual marks of punctuation, and I was glad to see that both typefaces came complete with a handy selection of special characters. Even so, there were a few marks missing: the interrobang for one; the numero symbol I use in many post titles for another. As I chatted to Frode Helland of Monokrom about the minutiae of web fonts, though, he suggested that he and Sindre might be able to add some new characters to help Shady Characters live up to its name.

Yes, Frode! A thousand times yes.

After years of writing about how difficult it is to promote lesser-known marks of punctuation without type designers’ backing, this was the first time I’d ever heard a type designer actively encourage the addition of new marks to their typefaces. A couple of weeks ago, then, Frode sent over revised versions of the font files with the following glorious new additions.

Custom symbols from Monokrom's Satyr typeface, as designed by Sindre Bremnes.
Roman and italic custom symbols from Monokrom’s Satyr typeface, as designed by Sindre Bremnes. The marks here have been rendered at 48 points in size and enlarged from there. From left to right, with roman above and italic below, the new marks are: numero, percontation mark, interrobang, barred “lb”, Tironian et, capitulum and ironiteken.

From left to right, the new marks are as follows:

numero sign (№)
The numero sign is a simple contraction of the Latin word numero to mean “number”. Needless to say, it is not a common mark except among typographic completists (your correspondent included) who like to set text as neatly as possible.
reversed question mark (⸮)
The reversed question mark was used for a short time during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as a rhetorical or ironic question mark, when it was called the “percontation mark”.
interrobang (‽)
We hardly need introduce the interrobang, do we‽ The interrobang is perhaps the quintessential modern shady character, invented in 1962 to punctuate surprised or rhetorical questions. It’s one of the few truly novel modern punctuation marks to have carved out a spot in Unicode, the standard computer character set, and I think Martin Speckter, the interrobang’s inventor, would have been over the moon to see a new version up in lights. (I know his wife Penny will be too.)
L B bar symbol (℔)
The baldly-named l b bar symbol is rather an oddball. It represents the familiar “lb” abbreviation for “pounds in weight”, derived from the Roman term libra pondo, but it comes accessorised with a bar to indicate that the two characters form an indivisible whole, in the style of medieval scribal practice. Isaac Newton was a fan, as were many of his contemporaries, but today the ‘℔’ is a rare sight indeed.
Tironian et (⁊)
The Tironian et is another old sign, created in Roman times as a shorthand symbol for the word et, or “and”. But for an accident of history, this could have replaced the familiar ampersand (&); today, you’re likely to see it in Irish Gaelic and almost nowhere else.
capitulum (⸿)
The so-called capitulum is the prototypical form of the better-known pilcrow, or ‘¶’. The tailless form of the mark shown here is derived from the very earliest pilcrows, where the letter ‘C’ for capitulum, or “little head”, was used to introduce the “head” of a new section or argument.
ironieteken ()
Last but not least is the ironieteken, another very new mark. Like the interrobang and the percontation mark, the ironieteken signals an ironic tone of voice; unlike them, it punctuates statements rather than questions. It was created back in 2007 by Bas Jacobs of Underware,* a Dutch type design studio, and I am excessively happy to have been involved, however incidentally, in promoting it. It is, I think, one of the most elegant of all new marks of punctuation, and one that deserves to have a much wider audience.

Some of these marks will already be visible in existing posts here at Shady Characters; others will appear in future.

I was eager to learn more about Sindre’s approach to adding new marks to an existing typeface and so, when we chatted over the phone a couple of weeks back, I asked him about Satyr, interrobangs, and everything in between.

Unexpectedly, Sindre started off by explaining that Satyr was inspired by ancient Viking boatbuilding. Along Norway’s western coast, wooden boats are still patterned after the forms and traditions of old Viking vessels, and the shape they take is very much dependent on their material: much like the Bézier curves from which digital typefaces are made, wood bends, but only so far. (Sindre told me, in fact, that his first exposure to Bézier curves came when he drew up blueprints of boats like this, long before he took up type design.)

Separately, Sindre is both a musician and a member of a musical family: he plays the viol (a fretted relative of the cello) and other similar instruments, while his father is a luthier who makes baroque and renaissance instruments such as lutes and viols — all of which are conspicuous for their curved and recurved forms. All this led Sindre to approach Satyr as a challenge: to design a typeface without a straight line in sight. If you zoom in to these letters or take a look at the image above, you’ll see that he has done just that without compromising the legibility of the resulting letterforms.

I asked Sindre how he went about adding the new marks to a typeface that is now some years old, and whether any of them offered particular problems. His answer surprised me, which just goes to show how little I know about type design: the reversed question mark, he said, was by far the hardest. Can’t you flip the normal question mark, I asked him? No, he said, and with good reason.

The thing is, Sindre explained, Satyr is designed according to a system: it has an overarching philosophy, if that’s the right word, in that it eschews straight lines in favour of curves, and Sindre’s realisation of that idea means that it favours certain curves and forms over others. Moreover, its serifs and strokes are laid out by an imaginary writer wielding a broad-nibbed pen: the pen is held at a particular angle so that each letter’s lines flow from thick to thin and back again in a predictable way. And finally, at the most fundamental level, each letter or mark has to conform to the familiar shapes hammered out over the centuries by a ghostly army of scribes gone by, the originators of our alphabet and its attendant symbols. Each of Satyr’s letters and marks of punctuation has to live within this system and to adhere to it as best it can.

The sticking point with the reversed question mark is that it is 180 degrees out of phase with those existing marks and letters. Like us, our scribal ancestors wrote, by and large, from left to right with pens held in their right hands. There is an underlying directionality to all our writing and text, whether we notice it or nor. Unfortunately, ‘⸮’ just does not fit in with ‘?’, or indeed with the general left-to-right bias of our alphabetic symbols. For this reason, Sindre said, he had to design Satyr’s ‘⸮’ from scratch in order to work out how it should conform to all these design constraints.

In second place, Sindre said, was the interrobang. When Martin Speckter proposed a new symbol back in 1962, he asked his art director, Jack Lipton, to draw up a variety of suggested forms for the “interrobang” (you can see them here), and a number of Speckter’s colleagues within the advertising world contributed their own ideas too. What we might call the “classical” form of the interrobang, however, is the one seen below at bottom right in Richard Isbell’s Americana typeface of 1966.

Americana type specimen, taken from American Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, 1993
Specimen of Americana, by Richard Isbell, taken from American Typefaces of the Twentieth Century (1993), by Mac McGrew. An interrobang is visible at the bottom right. (Permission to reproduce image granted by Oak Knoll Press.)

The problem with Isbell’s interrobang is evident: it’s not easy to coerce a question and exclamation mark into sharing the same airspace without either clumsily overlaying them or forcing one to give way to the other. Isbell took the second path, as can be seen in the slightly stunted vertical stroke of his interrobang, but Sindre went a third way, letting both marks coexist peacefully alongside one another while still sharing a single terminal dot, thus: ‘‽’. It reminds me of Christian Schwartz’s tripartite interrobang, as drawn for his Amplitude typeface, which, for my money, is one of the best interpretations so far. The interrobang may not have found its Platonic form just yet, but Christian and Sindre are showing it the way.

I must thank both Frode Helland and Sindre Bremnes for their help in getting Shady Characters up and running with its new typefaces, and doubly so for the trouble they went to in designing and integrating the new characters we’ve seen above. If you’re interested in these characters in particular, Frode tells me that they will be making their way into the standard version of Satyr in the near future; alternatively, if you like the look of any of Monokrom’s other typefaces, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

So now, over to you: Which is your favourite character here? What others would you like to see in the futures? As ever, you can leave a comment here or, if you’d prefer, you can drop me a line via the Contact page. Fire away!

Bas was of great help to me when researching the various irony and sarcasm marks that have been created over the years. I should thank him again for all his help! ↩︎
Take a look at a representative sample of interrobangs designed since Speckter’s time and you’ll see what I mean. ↩︎

Miscellany № 71 — ‘⋮’ redux

Last time round, inspired by Marcin Wichary’s tweet, I wrote a short post about the curious case of the character ‘⋮’, which was present on some of the earliest typewriter keyboards but that mysteriously disappeared from later machines. The comments came in thick and fast, and reader Thomas A. Fine was moved to carry out his own investigation into the life and death of the elusive vertical ellipsis.

Thomas turned up a host of intriguing evidence of the early years of the ‘⋮’, but there’s one reference in particular I thought was too good not to share here. Thomas points to Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note blog, where Shaun writes that none other than Mark Twain bought and used a typewriter in 1874, four years before one of Christopher Latham Sholes’ patents depicted the QWERTY keyboard for the first time. Shaun explains that on composing his first letter with this new-fangled writing machine, Twain’s daughter Susie got to the keyboard first and bashed in the following string of characters:1


Notable here is the absence of the digits 0 and 1 (to be typed with the uppercase ‘O’ and ‘I’ respectively), along with the lack of punctuation marks other than a hyphen, an underline and a colon — and, right in the middle of the line, a very clear vertical ellipsis. As a ex-compositor, Twain would have been quite at home with uncommon marks such as the pilcrow (¶), double dagger (‡) and manicule (☞) — as per the editors of his collected letters, he used these and other marks in his correspondence — but the ‘⋮’ never appeared again.2 Even if he knew what the mark meant, evidently, he never saw the need to use it. So near, and yet so far! Who would have been better than Mark Twain to enlighten us as to the meaning of the ‘⋮’?

Detail from page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes' 1878 typewriter patent, showing the '⋮' on the leftmost key of the third row. This was likely similar to the keyboard arrangement present on Mark Twain's 1874 Remington № 1. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)
Detail from page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes’ 1878 typewriter patent, showing the ‘’ on the leftmost key of the third row. This was likely similar to the keyboard arrangement present on Mark Twain’s 1874 Remington № 1. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)

For his part, Thomas concludes that the vertical ellipsis only existed on the very first of Sholes’ commercial typewriters, the so-called Sholes & Glidden, or Remington № 1, and that the character had already disappeared by the time of the 1878 Remington № 2. After all, he says, why type a paragraph character when a flick of the carriage return lever would start a new line? I’ll let Thomas take it from here; his post is a treasure trove of historical appearances for the vertical ellipsis, and it is well worth a look.

Separately, I was happy to see that Michele Buchanan, featured here back in 2014 as the creator of a number of new punctuation marks that included the sarcastic asterisk, the confused question mark (?~) and a doubled right parenthesis (‘))’) for jokes, has published her work in the pages of Communication Design.3 You can find Michele’s paper at Taylor & Francis Online, or you can check out her website at getthepoint.me. Many congratulations to Michele for publishing her paper!

Lastly, I’m sure that many readers will already have heard the sad news of the death of Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of our modern email addressing system and the man who, in essence, rescued the @-symbol from a life of obscurity. I never got the chance to talk to Mr Tomlinson while he was alive, but I was happy to be able to discuss his work here, in the Shady Characters book, and, more recently, with Clare Bates of the BBC for an article on the @-symbol’s remarkable rise to fame.

S. Clemens, “SLC to Orion Clemens, 9 Dec 1874,” Mark Twain Project ↩︎
Guide to Editorial Practice,” Mark Twain Project ↩︎
M. A. Buchanan, “@ face value // expanding our typographic repertoire,” Communication Design, vol. 3, iss. 1, pp. 27-50, 2015. ↩︎

Miscellany № 70 — ‘⋮’, ‘⌨’ & ‘¶’

Computers are not typewriters: this is evident. Even so, it’s easy to forget that Christopher Latham Sholes’ mechanical marvel was the wellspring of the QWERTY, QWERTZ, AZERTY and similar keyboards we use to interact with our laptops, tablets and smartphones. Sholes and his invention play supporting roles in the Shady Characters book, too: the typewriter helped popularise the @-symbol even as it savaged the em and en dashes, but there was always one symbol on Sholes’ embryonic QWERTY keyboard that I never quite got to grips with. Take a look at the leftmost key on the third row of Sholes’ keyboard, as shown in his 1878 patent for “Improvement in type-writing machines”.1 What on earth is that? Or rather, what on earth is this: ‘⋮’?

Page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes' 1878 typewriter patent, showing the mysterious '⋮' on the leftmost key of the third row. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)
Page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes’ 1878 typewriter patent, showing the mysterious ‘’ on the leftmost key of the third row. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)

A few weeks ago, Marcin Wichary, design lead and typographer at blogging platform Medium, posed the same question on Twitter. One of the first suggestions was that ‘⋮’ must be a shift key — it’s in the right place, more or less — but this feature did not appear until some years later; Sholes was happy to TYPE IN ALL CAPS, like a modern-day internet troll, and it was only after his patents had been acquired by Remington that shift-operated lower case letters appeared.

Next came the idea that it the mystery mark was a vertical ellipsis,2 a rotated version of the standard character (…) that has existed in Unicode since 1993, when it was introduced with version 1.1 of the standard computer character set. As Ross McKillop explained,

[⋮] serves same purpose as … but takes up less space so works on monospaced type3

So far, so reasonable — except, of course, that if the character in question is a vertical ellipsis then it has endured one of the most precipitous falls from grace I’ve yet come across. Every other symbol on Sholes’ original QWERTY keyboard survives in one form or another, and yet the vertical ellipsis, if that is what it was, has effectively disappeared from typographic use. The only similar symbol I’ve ever seen in the wild is the ‘⋮’ used in some Android applications to open a menu or to invoke some secondary action.4 The vertical ellipsis exists, certainly, but I’m pretty sure that it is not the same character that Sholes had in mind.

In the end, Marcin himself found the answer lurking in a paper entitled “On the Prehistory of QWERTY”, written by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka and published in the journal Zinbun in 2011. It so happens that I mentioned this paper in passing back in 2013, when looking into the layout of the letter keys on the QWERTY keyboard. I learned then that QWERTY’s confusing distribution of alphabetic keys may have been intended to help telegraph operators transcribe the dits and dahs of Morse code, where certain letters were often confused with one another:

[Morse] code rep­res­ents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is of­ten con­fused with the di­gram SE, more fre­quently-used than Z. Some­times Morse re­ceiv­ers in United States can­not de­term­ine whether Z or SE is ap­plic­able, es­pe­cially in the first let­ter(s) of a word, be­fore they re­ceive fol­low­ing let­ters. Thus S ought to be placed nearby both Z and E on the key­board for Morse re­ceiv­ers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more of­ten con­fused with S).5

But that is not all that the paper held. Marcin, who was rather more diligent in reading it than I had been, found that Koichi and Motoko also had a theory about our mysterious mark:

’ was added at the left edge of keyboard to indicate “paragraph separator” (“– – – –” in Morse Code of the Western Union Telegraph Company) that was often used when receiving newspaper articles.5

In other words, Sholes’ three-dot mark was the visual representation of the four audible dashes of a Morse code pilcrow: ‘⋮’ = ‘– – – –’ = ‘¶’, if you like.

I’m indebted to Marcin for uncovering this, but I’m also left wondering why Sholes didn’t use the more familiar pilcrow for his Morse code paragraph mark. Perhaps a reader can help shed some light on this — was the vertical ellipsis ever a common paragraph marker in telegraphy or otherwise?

C. L. Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines. U.S. Patent 207,559.,” , iss. US 207559, 1878. ↩︎
Unicode Character ‘VERTICAL ELLIPSIS’ (U+203D),” FileFormat.info, 2016. ↩︎
R. McKillop, “it’s a vertical ellipsis. Serves same purpose as \ldots but takes up less space so works on monospaced type,” Twitter, 2016. ↩︎
Action Bar,” Android Developers ↩︎
K. Yasuoka and M. Yasuoka, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY,” ZINBUN, vol. 42, pp. 161-174, 2011. ↩︎