The Sulzbacher Eszett

Our designers are often asked if there are particular letters that we especially enjoy drawing. Office doodles testify to the popularity of the letter R, perhaps because it synopsizes the rest of the alphabet in one convenient package (it’s got a stem, a bowl, serifs both internal and external, and of course that marvelous signature gesture, the tail.) A quick straw poll names a, r, f and e as popular letters too, as well as the figures 2 and 5, and our resident Cyrillist admits a soft spot for the swash capital dje (Ђ.) The back end of the character set definitely invites invention as well: steely designers always appreciate a well-made paragraph mark or double dagger, and we certainly have our fun drawing them.

One character that’s especially gratifying to get right is the eszett, if only because it so stubbornly resists being figured out. Eszetts can follow any number of constructions, from the romanized long-s-short-s of Archer to the more Teutonic long-s-meets-z of Verlag. Most fonts strike some balance between these extremes, introducing internal shapes that echo other parts of the character set (as in Mercury) or using simplified geometries that reinforce the philosophy behind the overall design (as in Gotham.)

Historian James Mosley has posted an essay about the eszett to his indispensable Typefoundry blog, which sheds some light on the character’s checkered past. (The eszett lives in contemporary German as a ligatured form of the double s, but its very name means s-z; Mosley explains why.) An especially welcome gift from the essay is the correct technical name for the romanized ß: it is the “Sulzbacher form,” after Abraham Lichtenthaler, the seventeenth century printer denizened in the Bavarian town of Sulzbach, who is credited with introducing the character to roman printing type. —JH

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