Before the Internet, the @ and # symbols were relatively obscure. Unless you were an accountant or a bookkeeper, you simply never used them. On the typewriter, they were largely ignored, and in a typesetter’s tray, the @ and # symbols were usually among the most virgin and pristine slugs.
Then email and social media came along, reviving the @ and # symbols on the keyboard and turning them into the hottest metal slugs in letterpress. In fact, the @ and # symbols are so in demand that some letterpress artisans are starting to find the slugs a little hard to come by.
In a wonderful article about the exploding market for @ symbols and hashtags among movable type print setters, the Wall Street Journal discusses how these symbols are being used so often that the metal is actually wearing away:
Bryan Baker, 36, is the printer-in-residence at Signal-Return letterpress studio in Detroit. He uses his @ symbols so often for printed email addresses, they wear out quickly. Printers in the same boat will sometimes replace the @ with a dingbat, a printer’s ornament absent from a standard keyboard but found in abundance in collections of old type. They can get away with it, Mr. Baker explains, because people don’t really see the @ anymore. He has seen stars, bullets, triangles, fleurs-de-lis and even little turkeys used as stand-ins. Another solution is to spell out the word “at.”
In a strange way, the limitations of hand-set type often yield more exciting, innovative designs. “It’s harder to be derivative,” says Mr. Baker, because the first easy solution isn’t always available as it would be on a computer.
@ and # symbols are so in demand among letterpress printers that there’s now a cottage industry of movable type dealers specializing in selling them by the pound. Who’d have thought? In a little more than a decade, these two symbols have gone from the wallflowers of the keyboard to the belles of the typesetter’s ball.