The Origin of the Ampersand

 

It’s the character that was taken out of the alphabet – but is still used every day.

The ampersand is mostly used stylistically today; it’s used as a symbol for “and”, but only to save room or for aesthetic reasons.

But the ampersand used to be much more common. Where did this strange symbol originate?

It all traces back to the 1st century A.D. and Roman cursive, where E and T were sometimes formed together as a single symbol. This ligature continued to be used through the years and became more and more stylized.

The modern ampersand that we’re so used to comes from this “et” ligature.

Medieval script

The “et” ligature in Medieval script.

Ever since printing was invented, the ampersand has been used extensively. At first it was simply called “and” or “et” (“Et” is the Latin word for “and”). The symbol had also become part of the Latin alphabet.

It even appeared at the end of the English alphabet as late as the 19th century. This is where it got its name: when children recited the alphabet, the ampersand came right after Z, recited as “and per se and” meaning “and in and of itself”.

This morphed into the abbreviation “ampersand”, which stuck around even after it was dropped from the alphabet.

With the popularity of typography these days, ampersands can be found in signs and other decor all over the place. And now you know where they came from.

 

The evolution of the ampersand.

The evolution of the ampersand.

The Hidden Language of Stamps

 

Once upon a time, before text messages and email that could be kept between two people, the art of communicating sometimes required secrecy.

If anyone feared their postcard being intercepted by a family member or friend, all they had to do was pull out their book of secret stamp language and figure out the code of the stamp’s placement.

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Of course, such a code had its downsides – the message of the stamp based on its orientation changed from source to source. One code suggests that an upside-down stamp means “I am not free,” while another suggests that the same placement means “I love you truly” or “I am always true to you”. You can imagine what sort of misunderstandings this could cause.

However, the “language of the stamps” still strikes our fancy. If you want to write to a loved one and send them a secret message via stamp placement, here are some codes from the Philatelic Database:

 

Stamp Placement:

  • Upside down, top left corner: I love you
  • Diagonal on top left corner: My heart is another’s
  • Top center of envelope: Yes
  • Bottom center of envelope: No
  • Right side up: Goodbye sweetheart
  • Upside-down, top right corner: Write no more
  • At a right angle, top right corner: I hate you

…And these are just a few of them!

 

Some of these are excessively harsh – but at least they saved the recipient their dignity if anyone else were to discover the letter.

It’s possible that stamp language was actually barely used. Vintage novelty postcards tout the language of the stamps and show what certain placements mean, but doesn’t it kind of ruin the purpose if it translates it right there on the card?

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But if the card gives no explanation to the placement of the stamp, it’s completely up to the receiver to determine what code was used.

If you used a secret stamp code, who would you send it to and what would it say?

Images from this source.

 

What are Naval Covers?

A special kind of philately takes place on the high seas.

 

 

At their most basic, naval covers are letters or postcards from sailors, with postmarks from U.S. Navy ships. Some of these postmarks have designs called cachets, unique designs that each have their own particular aesthetic.

“Naval philately” is its own special kind of collecting, less for the stamps and more for the postmarks and cachets.

The first naval cover collectors were members of the International Postal Marking Society, who sent stamped and addressed envelopes to U.S. Navy ships to receive strikes. Collectors still send envelopes for their collections today.

For the most part, Navy ships have their own postal stations. This is so that sailors have their own means of sending mail while sailing around the world.

Naval cover terminology is pretty basic:

  • There’s the dater circle, called a “dial”.
  • Slots are at the center for the date slugs.
  • These include either the name of a ship or a generic U.S. Navy marking in the dater.
  • The right of the dial has some kind of geometric pattern to prevent the stamp’s reuse (as anyone who has received a letter is familiar with), called the “killer”.

The online Naval Cover Museum at navalcovermuseum.org has a phenomenal collection that users can browse through and add to.

Here are just a few samples from their collection:

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A more basic naval cover with the ship's cancel seen over the stamp.

A basic naval cover with the ship’s cancel seen over the stamp.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

Just seeing the beautiful designs of the cachets confirms why naval cover collectors want to own these small pieces of art.

Take a look through the virtual naval cover museum. Do you see any covers you particularly like? Let us know in the comments!

And if you develop an interest in creating your own collection, the U.S. Navy has a list of Navy ship addresses.