When we read, thoughts remote from the words on the page or screen often pop into our minds. In the unlikely moment of reading how Muscovites celebrated winter holidays in a fine restaurant of the Metropol Hotel, ampersands popped into my mind.
Wrote Amor Towles in his bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016):
From the day the Metropol opened its doors [in 1907], the good people of Moscow had looked to the Piazza to set the tone of the season. For by five o’clock on the first of December, the room had already been festooned in anticipation of the New Year. Evergreen garlands with bright red berries hung from the fountain. Strings of lights fell from the balconies. And revelers? From all across Moscow they came, such that by eight o’clock, when the orchestra struck up its first festive song, every table was spoken for. By nine, the waiters were dragging chairs in from the corridors so that latecomers could hang their arms over the shoulders of friends.
This scene appears in the novel’s Book One, set in 1922. “Shoulders of friends” brought to my mind flamboyant ampersands penned by Italian Giovanni Battista Palatino in 1540. Ampersands from 1936, 2010, and 2015 followed, filling my head with ampersand “revelers.”
Palatino taught the art of writing. After Johann Gutenberg printed the first typographic book, circa 1450 in Mainz, Germany, other men mastered the trade, and book production spread across Europe. The more books, the more literacy in all social classes, and people who learned to read, wanted to learn to write. Scribes displaced by printing presses freelanced as writing masters to teach this essential skill. Giovanni Battista Palatino (c.1515 – c.1575) was one of the best.
To flaunt their expertise and help students learn, masters produced manuals of instruction. In 1540, Palatino published his first writing manual, titled Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere. The six ampersands below, from the 1561 edition of the manual, appear to reach for the shoulders of friends.
As symbols for “and,” the ampersands do what comes naturally: bring people, ideas, and actions together. They are connectors, the life of the party on the page.
The 1936 ampersands that came to mind are from a Christmas keepsake book produced by the Typophiles of New York — the first book ever exclusively about ampersands.
In the early 1930s, several New York men in the printing trades met regularly for lunch to talk shop, share stories, and amuse each other with small examples of their work. Paul Arthur Bennett (1897-1966), typography executive with the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, held the unofficial job of organizer. The group called themselves The Typophiles.
In late autumn 1935, a few of the friends, led by Bennett, conceived the idea of a Christmas book about ampersands, since, Bennett wrote in his call for entries, “No important or unimportant work on the subject seems to have been published.” Bennett sent out a flyer calling for “serious or not too serious” copy, with guidelines on format and a deadline of November 1, 1936. The deadline allowed time for compilation and printing, so the book could be distributed on Christmas Day at the Typophiles annual holiday Party. Bennett titled the book Diggings from many Ampersandhogs.
Writer Morris Schreiber and Caldecott Medalist illustrator Roger Duvoisin collaborated on the entry, “Ampersand: The Symbol Unique.” Morris wrote a breezy history of the ampersand that opens with Cicero on the battlefield, visits a Pilgrim schoolroom, leaps international boundaries, climbs the ampersand family tree, and culminates by proclaiming the ampersand “the utmost attainable in typographical perfection.”
Featured among Duvoisin’s eleven illustrations are four pairs of back-to-back ampersands.
Neither Morris nor Duvoisin explains the double ampersands but give this hint: “ ‘&’ is the universal link.” I interpret this to mean that the ampersand not only is the universal link between people, words, ideas, and actions, it is the universal link across time.
The past ends and the future begins in present moment. We see this “now moment” in the overlap space of the linked ampersands. To me, the ampersand on the left in each pair stands with its back to us and gazes on history. The ampersand on the right faces us and looks toward the days to come. The pairs rub shoulders in friendship as they link past to future.
In 2010, on January 12, a magnitude 7 earthquake crumbled Haiti. The Society of Typographic Aficionados responded by creating Font Aid IV: Coming Together, the fourth SOTA Font Aid project to help refugees of war and natural disasters.
The Coming Together font consists entirely of ampersands, to represent the idea of people coming together to help one another. All proceeds from font sales go to help victims of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. Nearly 400 type designers, graphic designers, and other artists from around the world contributed artwork to the font.
Three designers contributed ampersands that join. The pair by Joachim Muller-Lance of Seoul, Korea, lend each other a hand to lift themselves out of their topsy-turvy world.
The mirror-image twosome by Neil Woodyatt of Leeds, UK, see eye to eye on their plans for a better life.
Max Kisman of the Utrecht area, Netherlands, shows a couple in a warm embrace, grateful to be in each other’s arms.
The ampersand from 2015 that Towles’s Metropol brought to mind is a book cut into the ampersand shape, given to me as a birthday present. A clever artist (name unknown) carved the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume 192, number 5, into the condensed “&” figure (& began life as a ligature of et, Latin for and). Open the book and suddenly — double the fun — shoulder-to-shoulder, rump-to-rump ampersands!
Towles follows his scene of holiday cheer with one of a subdued Piazza:
[I]t was with a touch of disappointment that the Count entered the Piazza on this winter solstice to find the room ungarlanded, the balustrades unstrung, an accordion player on the bandstand, and two-thirds of the tables empty.
Politics kept people away, for in December 1922, Soviet officials were embroiled in drafting a treaty to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Some hundred years later, in 2020, the infectious coronavirus disease — called COVID-19, for the first cases identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 — kept people away from public places around the world. Within three months of detecting the first case, international travel spread the disease into a pandemic. Droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, and talking transmit the disease among people in close contact, as in airplanes, on cruise ships, and at sports events. Research by Lydia Bourouiba, PhD and her group at MIT revealed that droplets from an uncovered sneeze can travel up to 27 feet.
In stressful times, when climates of politics and disease require us to isolate, quarantine, or shelter in place, in Towles’s words, “the drumbeat of the season must sound from within.”
When an ampersand stands alone, it stands for connection. Pair it with second one, and you double its drumbeat. When you stand alone, you are still connected to the rest of mankind. Think of yourself as an ampersand with an orchestra of connections.
Even alone, you join people, words, ideas, and actions. You join where you were to where you will be. You join who you were to who you will be when the pandemic fades.
Set an example and a positive tone by letter, phone, computer, behavior, and gesture. When we can hang our arms over the shoulders of friends again, people will want to befriend you.