06 October, 2013

Commercial at

Note: this post is now followed by a Postscript that its readers are recommended to look at.

The ‘commercial at’, the character @, has needed an entry in this blog for some time, and indeed I have drafted many texts on it without posting them. This was not so much because the Wikipedia article on @ was seriously defective. It does, as one might expect, supply a great deal of what is needed. But the published information has failed to settle some of the puzzling details that we have some right to expect would have been resolved by now.
In his mostly excellent brief history for a non-professional readership, Ancient writing and its influence (1932), the palaeographer B. L. Ullman rather rashly remarked that,
‘The national hands which grew out of cursive preserved a still greater number of ligatures. The Carolingian hand suppressed most of them... But some of them were too well established and therefore have persisted to this day. The most important of all was that of et, introduced into formal writing by half uncial. We use it in English for “and”, the equivalent for Latin et, and call it “ampersand” (“and per se and”) a name that arose when this character was placed at the end of the alphabet and was recited with the other letters: “x, y, z, and, per se [by itself] (the character standing for) and”. This has taken on many different forms in different styles of writing and printing, but nearly all are based on the old & and the italic &. ... Other ligatures still in use are ae (æ) ... There is also the sign @, which is really for ad, with an exaggerated uncial d.’
The ‘lay’ or arrangement of types in the compositor’s case, although it had mostly become fairly standardized, tended to vary in some of its details from printing-house to printing-house, according to the kind of work that was chiefly set there. The abandonment of long s and its ligatures in about 1800, which had occupied nearly twenty sorts of the roman and italic founts, freed up some space in the case. The 1892 edition of the Practical Printing of John Southward showed a series of non-alphabetic characters in its example of an ‘improved’ upper case which had not been in a normal case earlier in the century.
These, shown above, in the top three rows of the upper case, included not only @ and the mostly redundant ‘per cent’ character %, but also the pound sign £, the dollar $, and also types for the calligraphic ‘per’ and for lb (the pound weight). These were all needed for use in commercial jobs like the printing of catalogues of goods for sale. The & was included in one of the small boxes at the left hand side of the lower case, which had long been its traditional place. The lb character with its cross stroke became obsolete, but it is worth noting that it was used throughout the 29 volumes of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, set on the Monotype machine.
Many of these characters migrated to the typewriter, which was introduced as a commercial machine for use in offices. No significant domestic market for it was imagined by its original makers, just as the first makers of computers notoriously could not believe that there might be a domestic market for their product. The ‘commercial characters’ were not found on every early typewriter, but it seems to be agreed that most of them, including @, had been placed on typewriters by the early twentieth century, and thereafter few typewriter keyboards lacked them. For this reason these symbols were unquestioningly adopted by the makers of computer keyboards, who were rigidly bound by tradition.
The ‘per’ symbol (which was admittedly a rather elaborate design) failed to get onto the normal typewriter keyboard and has faded from memory. However, one symbol that did, although few users of computers had any idea what it was for and how to use it, was of course @. Since it appeared to be both universally available and largely useless, it was adopted, as we know (the event has been well-documented), for use with the internet and with email. And although it has been a nuisance to the designers of fonts, who have rarely found its form easy to adapt to match traditional letters, there seems little likelihood that we shall get rid of it easily. The @ we have is rooted in the commercial handwriting of the 19th century.
If this is the case, we are entitled to ask why this is, and where and when did it begin to be used? Surely this is a question that it should be easy enough to answer.
Since the question was of no interest to academic historians of writing or typography, enthusiastic amateurs entered the discussion, scattering a profusion of badly-informed ideas. Not long ago, the blogosphere seemed to be full of their excited chatter. Here is some of it, from Italian and Spanish blogs:
Scoperta! la @ è italiana! (Discovery! The @ is Italian!)
La chiocciola @ di e-mail è una invenzione tutta italiana (The @ is a wholly Italian invention)
¿Creó un sevillano la @? (Did a Sevillian create the @?)
Sevilla utiliza la @ como reclamo turístico (Seville uses the @ as publicity for tourism.)
La arroba no es de Sevilla (ni de Italia) (The @ is not from Seville, nor from Italy)
La @ ya se utilizaba en 1448 en Aragón (The @ was already in use in Aragon in 1448)
It would be churlish to spoil their evident enjoyment of such stuff. (Googling will bring up plenty more examples.) We can only hope that they lead to lines of enquiry that are frankly more worth pursuing.
One of these is the claim that the @ stood for the amphora, the vessel for wine or oil that stood for a unit of measurement known to Greeks and Arabs, and that the Anglo-Saxons (commercial rivals from England and the USA) eventually stole the symbol for their own use. The other line, worth pursuing because it has left its trace in current usage, is that the @ stands for arroba, a unit of weight and capacity of arabic origin, long used in the Spanish-speaking world, which was only eliminated by the adoption of the metric system. Arroba is still the Hispanic word for @.
I have no intention here of raking through among the embarrassingly cute terms that are currently used for the @ in other languages by writers who have stumbled on it for the first time, like the chiocciola (snail) in Italian – see above – or the ‘monkey’s tail’ (Dutch), or the eymologically dubious arrobase that is used for some reason in France. Most of the discussion in circulation is dismally facetious and credulous.
Still, since there is usually some basis underlying many myths in current circulation, one purpose in offering this post (which I hope will soon be rendered obsolete) is to identify these myths and to distinguish between them.
I said that Ullman was rash in appearing to link the use of @ to &, saying that both symbols were ‘still in use’, though in justice to him one must note that – unless one takes his reference to ‘uncial’ literally – he did not assign an early manuscript use to it (as at least one online source has accused him of doing). The ampersand did indeed arrive in current use in the 15th century with the revived Carolingian hand of humanism, and it was adopted for their types by Italian printers like Jenson. It is sometimes a delightful design, which has attracted some major punchcutters, but one should note that it was unwise of the BBC in 2012 to let an enthusiast attempt to trace its history on its Radio 4 (of all unsuitable non-visual media). In that context it should have been noted that the inspirational punchcutter was Granjon rather than Garamont, and that the old Roman ‘Tironian’ shorthand symbol for ‘and’ (looking a bit like the figure 7) was not an ligature of e and t, and although it remained in common use in gothic script and types, it (and they) faded eventually from use.
But what about the @. When did it enter into use in commercial writing? Like most people, I suspect, I thought it had been normal English usage in business papers for some centuries. Then I tried to find examples. It was not easy. I found nothing from the 17th century. One of the earliest convincing examples I have found was something – but hardly more than an ill-defined scribble – in the papers of William Strahan (1715–1785), whose prosperity among contemporary printers in London was commonly supposed to be due to his exemplary business methods. The example that follows is simply my rough sketch from a document of 1739 (Add. MS 48800, f. 17v) among the Strahan Papers in the British Library.
It is the earliest example that I have found. Thereafter (but much later and far more slowly than I had thought), the symbol did indeed begin to be adopted in British practice for ‘at a certain price’ or ‘at a rate of’. This example of the @ as a printing type, which is the first that I have found anywhere, is in a specimen of the Miller typefoundry in Edinburgh, 1822.
It can be seen again in an English manual of printing (T. C. Hansard, Typographia, 1825), in a passage reproducing handwritten book-keeping. (Notice, too, the use here of a typographical version of the symbol for ‘per’.)
Here, finally, is an example of @ in a British handbook of instructions for book-keeping, C. Morrison, Practical book-keeping, Edinburgh, 1838. It is very nicely drawn, but its date is quite late.
What about the Spanish connection? In 2000 there was a flurry of excitement about the ‘discovery’ of the early use of @ by an Italian academic. The source was Professor Giorgio Stabile, of La Sapienza university in Rome, who was engaged on an article for the Treccani encyclopedia, one of the enterprises that Google and Wikipedia have to some extent displaced for use in our current research.
Stabile let it be known to some friends in the media that in the course of his researches into commercial documents he had found an early use of @ in the correspondence of some Italian merchants based in Seville in 1536. This discovery made news, and it still generates some excitement in journals that should know better, like the New York Times and the Guardian, who keep obsolete links alive to Stabile and his important researches.
It would have been satisfactory if Prof. Stabile had been more candid about the source of his ‘discovery’. To his credit, he did later acknowledge that his ‘research’ among original documents consisted in this case of finding an example in a well-known, well edited and well illustrated published collection of commercial correspondence that had been made some decades before by Federigo Melis, Documenti per la storia economica dei secoli XIII–XVI, con una nota di Paleografia Commerciale di Elena Cecchi. Firenze: Olschki, 1972 (Istituto Internazionale di Storia economica ‘F. Datini’ Prato, Pubblicazioni – Serie I. Documenti, 1). The documents that Stabile claimed to have found are illustrated on pages 214–215, and the originals are among the Strozzi papers in the Archivio di Stato, Florence.
Stabile explained that the symbol @ in this text stood for containers of wine measured by the unit known as the amphora, and he suggested (but without providing sources) that this was a widely-used Mediterranean unit of measurement. He might have added – but he did not – that in several of the commercial letters shown in his book by Melis, the @ is also commonly used for the date, in phrases like ‘Ad di 20 di gennaio’ (on 20 January), which takes it closer to its later use in business documents. He made no reference to its more general use in contemporary Italian commercial handwriting or the scrittura mercantesca, on which, as its title shows, a useful appendix in Melis’s book was contibuted by Elena Cecchi.
How far did the historians of writing contribute to the story? For writing of the Italian Renaissance they gave most of their attention to the cancellaresca corsiva, the official ‘chancery hand’ derived from the humanistic cursive of the 15th century which was shown in a well-known series of printed handbooks of the 16th century. All the same, in several of these handbooks an example of the gothic commercial hand, the mercantesca, was often to be found at the back. There is in fact a little handbook of the hand by Eustachio Celebrino, an associate of the writing master Tagliente, Il modo di imparare di scrivere lettera merchantescha, 1525, but it does not appear to include examples of the use of @.
The earliest example of the @ character that I have found in an Italian writing book is in a document in the commercial hand in a letter dated 8 May 1557, a woodcut at the end of the first publication of Giovanni Francesco Cresci, the Essemplare di scrivere più sorti lettere, published in Rome in 1560, with the phrase, ponete @ conto nostro – ‘put [the sum] to our account’.
And here is the @ again in a document dated 1569 in Cresci’s Il perfetto scrittore of about 1570: la valuta di libre centouinticinque di seta calabrese presa da noi @ Ragion di [scudi] tre la libra per pagar a tempo dj xviij mesi proximi @ venire (the value of a hundred and twenty-five pounds of silk from Calabria, obtained from us at a rate of three scudi per pound, to be paid within eighteen months).
From these examples, there seems little doubt that the @ was in regular use in more or less its later sense of ‘the commercial at’ in Italian documents of the 16th century. If it disappears from later writing books, this is probably because they were not much concerned with the gothic commercial hands. There are intermittent examples that have been published online of later French and Spanish handwritten usage, but very few with reference to specific, dated documents of which the present whereabouts is clearly specified. For the arroba, that term of Arabic origin, the later Spanish character in printing was indeed @, but it seems to me that this usage may simply be the result of borrowing ‘Anglo-Saxon’ type, since by 1900 the @ was widely available from typefounders in Europe and in North America. We need far more authenticated examples of its use (and its meaning) in earlier, dated handwritten documents.
I ought to add a final illustration of the @ in the type specimen of J. B. Clement-Sturme in Valencia, 1833, details of which are given in the admirable list of Spanish type specimens by Albert Corbeto (Catalogación y estudio de las muestras de letras impresas hasta el año 1833), published in 2010. The @ (with a design that is based on a roman a) is used to give the price of the type by weight, the unit being the arroba: Precio di cada @ castellana, 162½ Reales.
I am sure that there is much documentation that can be done by the many researchers who trawl through the innumerable business records that survive in major collections. I hope that, in the course of their work, they will spare a thought for historians in other fields, and save some well-documented images for us that will fill in the many gaps that exist and which still frustrate the fulfilment of our wish to complete the story.

This post began with a reference to discontent with the confused, often badly-informed and sometimes chauvinistic sources of information that frustrated my own attempts to understand where this symbol came from and what it has meant. It made me doubt whether I should add yet another contribution to the debate.
However I am glad that I did, because it has led me to discover a substantial body of work that will do much to clear up the confusion. In January 2013 Marc Smith, Professor of Mediaeval and Modern Palaeography at the École nationale des Chartes, the leading institution in its field in France, gave an illustrated lecture on the @ in French, a link to which can be found on YouTube. He has published a summary of his lecture in a printed journal in France (Graphê 55, July 2013), and he plans to put its substance into a book. One hopes that it will include a generous selection from the many images of documents, handwritten and printed, some of which are familiar but most of which are wholly unknown, that accompany the lecture.
At the heart of his argument is the question of the arroba, the unit of weight (and capacity) of twenty-five pounds that was a part of Spain’s heritage from its arabic past until the metric system overtook it. One meaning of @ in Spain and Portugal, and to some extent in France, was indeed the arroba, but it stood for many other things too. Professor Smith shows that it was something of an all-purpose abbreviation for many words beginning with a, like avoir. In one of his documents, in French, dated 1391, it is used for initial ‘an’. The current French term arrobase appears to be simply based on the Spanish plural arrobas. But he notes, as I have done, that English speakers belatedly adopted a continental variant of an accented form of a as ‘à’, tending to use it where it was a convenient way of saving space by not writing ‘at’ in full. As a universal term, he appears to be content with the anglophone commercial at.
As a palaeographer, Marc Smith was well qualified to find and to interpret the many early documents in which @ has appeared. But his researches have been wide-ranging, and he has done good work among handbooks for book-keepers, typefounders’ specimens, several from Spain, beginning with Pedro Ifern, 1793 (but he shows a rather crude example, possibly cut on wood, in the Ortografìa de la lengua castellana of the Real Academia Española, Madrid, 1754), collections of commercial correspondence, and typewriters. He offers the Caligraph No. 2 Commercial of 1883 as an early machine with a key for @. For French typefounders, with an eye on their neighbouring market in Spain, the @ stood for arroba. He has found a type for an English @ in Patrick Kelly, Elements of book-keeping, 1805.
Since he does not substantially differ from the suggestions I make in my own text, I am inclined to leave it more or less as it was posted, but anyone wishing to take the matter further and stand on firm ground must turn to his account of his own extensive researches, and follow them as they progress. One hopes that they will.
JM 11 October 2013