Wood Type - AE & OE

I have wondered for some time - when was the cutting of the AE and OE phased out? A response on a recent post indicated Page never cut AE. Is there general consensus of when the production stopped and which manufacturers made them, which ones didn’t?

I’m curious because it seems a good way to date any set that includes the AE or OE.

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I will take a stab at responding to this, though I am sure others will have additional information to share.

The æ œ Æ Œ ligatures are remnants of the Latin and Greek languages. Since Latin was still widely taught and used in liturgical and scientific writings in the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century, these ligatures often made it into type fonts. Wikipedia (or should I say Wikipædia?) suggests that these letter combinations began to gradually fall into dis-use with the invention of the telegraph and the typewriter—in the English language. That sounds like a reasonable explanation, though I would like to see some hard evidence. Several European languages continue to use these letter combinations. So the ligatures in question are NOT extinct.

I have about 80 fonts of wood type, but only a half dozen fonts have these AE OE ligatures (æ œ Æ Œ). The only wood type fonts that have them either have no manufacturer’s mark or are marked Cooley. They all appear to be typefaces created between the 1850s-1880s. No Page Co. type and no Hamilton type that I own has the æ œ Æ Œ ligatures. That’s not to say Hamilton or Page never cut these characters, but there are none in my collection.

Metal type is another story. Paging through McGrew, the ligatures only show up occasionally, probably less than 5 percent; most of those were from the very early twentieth century or faces designed in the nineteenth century. But not all. A number of Goudy’s mid-century designs contain the æ œ Æ Œ ligatures, as do several other faces: Helvetica, for example (1957). Twentieth century display faces rarely, if ever, show these ligatures.

My guess (only a guess at this point) is that the wood type manufacturers pretty much dumped the idea of providing these characters by the 1890s or so. They weren’t necessary for large type in broadsides and headlines. You could probably special order them. Metal typefounders continued to provide them in some of their Roman, Italic, and blackletter types because there was still some demand for them, even into the mid twentieth century.

It’s an interesting topic, and I would like to hear what others might know about the æ œ Æ Œ characters.

As far as US wood-type goes, I can only speak from my observation of specimens that were in my collection and information published in Kelly’s book. Wells included those characters prior to 1868, when his maker’s mark had the “Dutch Street” address. Cooley sold his business to Page, prior to 1870, I think, after a fire in his business offices, in New York. After that time, I have never seen those “Latin ligatures” added to any US wood font, but I think that the English, and other European makers, included them. The US “scales or schemes” did not show them, either. I’m sure that they might have cut them, on special order, but there is no evidence of them ever being included in complete fonts after 1869. I have used that information to date some fonts, that did not contain a capital A.
Dave Greer

Given the uses to which wood type was put, I’m sure there would have been very little call for ligatures in wood type in the U.S. The manufacturers might or might not have offered them, but the printers, who often bought only the letters they needed, would be very unlikely to order them, so they’d be unlikely to show up in the U.S. The only likely market for the ligs would have been in Europe, in France and Scandinavia, and there they’d require accents as well. I doubt that much Latin was set in wood type. I’ve been going over the 40-odd fonts of wood type at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, I don’t recall seeing any ae/oe ligs at all.

Metal type is another matter. It would be more likely to be sold abroad to countries where the ae & oe ligs were needed, and those ligs would also have been wanted by publishers who set Latin. My impression is that the ae/oe ligs were often provided in a standard font scheme—and often never used. A good number of the metal fonts at MCBA have them.

The idea that the telegraph and typewriter (and later, the computer keyboard) were factors in the disuse of the ae & oe ligatures sounds very likely to me. (Look what the typewriter did to apostrophes and quotes.) Now that you mention it, I’d imagine that the Linotype played a major part too, and, to a lesser extent, the more flexible Monotype. In the days of hand composition, the ct and st ligatures, and in some languages ae and oe, might have been worth the space they took because those letter combinations were extremely common, so having them on one piece of type instead of two saved the compositor a lot of work.

But the ae and oe ligs were probably on their way out anyway, following in the path of the ct and st ligs and long esses. I don’t know about scandinavian languages, but ae & oe ligs are totally superfluous for reading in French and Latin. (In Latin, they were once used by some for the great majority of ae and oe combinations that were pronounced as diphthongs, to distinguish them from the few that weren’t. However, once the hand compositor’s convenience was no longer a factor, it was apparently accepted that it was easier to mark the few non-diphthongs with a diaeresis, and set the rest with common keystrokes.) Not only are they superfluous, but in italic fonts, the oe lig was often used for both ae and oe, probably because it’s hard to design an italic ae lig. This can be an out-and-out nuisance for the reader, especially in Latin, where both ae and oe combinations are very common. Also, the extra tying strokes on the ct and st ligs, and the crashed letters in ae and oe, detract at least somewhat from readability and page color.

It was several years ago that I noticed that ae oe ligatures are shown with almost every face that was offered by Monotype, even though these characters were never drawn for these faces by their original designers!!! Apparently Monotype elected to design and incorporate the ligatures into their schemes.

I am referring to Monotype’s big red book with the binding system that allows additions to be added. The book itself has no date because of the flexibility of its makeup.

My first thought at discovering this was that they probably technically should have been included in Mac McGrew’s book, but it seemed like such a minor detail. If there is ever a revised edition (there are many additions and corrections that can be made), perhaps this fact should be mentioned.