Cheerily nuzzled above the “7” key like a pear-shaped pill bug, the ampersand is perhaps the most intriguing character on the keyboard. While all letters and punctuation marks look similar enough in abstract, the ampersand feels unique, like a shape-shifter that could transform at a moment’s notice. For type designers and aficionados both, it isn’t so much a character as it is a character, “usually a tirelessly entertaining one, perhaps an uncle with too many tricks,” as Simon Garfield wrote in his 2012 book, Just My Type.
No wonder the ampersand attracts such endless fascination. There are coloring books about ampersands, ampersand-a-day Tumblr blogs, and a whole cottage industry of t-shirt makers working in ampersands. Perhaps the most epic undertaking of ampersand-ian tribute came in 2010, when over 400 different designers came together to create an entire font made up of nothing but distinctive and unrepeated ampersands. The project speaks to the ampersand’s individuality: a font of nothing but ampersands is easy to imagine in a way that a font of only lower case “j“s could never be.
But if an ampersand feels like it can be anything, what makes an ampersand an ampersand? Where does it come from? And why, exactly, do type designers love it so much more than other characters?