The First Known Uses of 6 Common Typographic Symbols

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Many of the most common symbols on our keyboards have fascinating origin stories. Some, such as the zero, we now take for granted—yet the idea of denoting an absence of value was not present in Western mathematics until introduced from the East. Other symbols, such as the hashtag or at-sign, had a variety of uses until the internet ushered in a new way of communicating and fixed them with the meanings we know today. Below are six examples of the first known usage and subsequent history of some of the most common typographic symbols.

1. AT SIGN // @

The @ (or at-sign) is usually dated to 1536 in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, who used it to mean a unit of wine called “amphorae.” But a Spanish researcher claims to have found an even earlier usage in a 1448 document, where the symbol also referred to a unit of measurement (even today, Spaniards call the @ symbol arroba, which is also a unit of weight, and some other Romance languages have similar dual meanings). Either way, the researchers think that the symbol then moved to Northern Europe, where it eventually gained the meaning of “at the price.” Other explanations have also been offered, but whatever the exact root of the symbol, its meaning eventually became known as shorthand for at, and it was generally used in written financial transactions—for example, in noting “Bob sells James 4 apples @ $1.”

The sign had largely fallen out of use by the early 1970s, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working at what is now BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tomlinson, who was working for the government on a forerunner of the internet, was trying to figure out how to address messages sent from one computer to another when he noticed the little-used @ on his computer keyboard, and used it to send a prototype email. This precedent was soon adopted as the internet developed, and the at-sign is now, of course, central to our lives.

2. ZERO // 0

The absence of a value is a complex concept, one that many ancient civilizations struggled with. The idea of a zero ultimately came to the West from the mathematicians of India, where, as in a few other cultures, zero was initially used as a placeholder, for example to indicate a lack of units, as in the number 101.

The earliest surviving usage of a zero in India has been traced to an ancient mathematical text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, which is held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In September 2017, radiocarbon dating indicated that the manuscript was produced as early as the 3rd or 4th century—providing us with the first known usage of zero some 500 years earlier than previously thought. As Oxford’s Bodleian Library says, “the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today."

The manuscript itself was discovered buried in a field in 1881 in what is today Pakistan. Written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, historians think it represents a training manual for Silk Road traders, teaching them concepts of arithmetic.

3. HASHTAG // #

Hashtag on an old typewriter key
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The origin of the hashtag (or pound sign as it's traditionally known in the U.S.) comes from scribes writing shorthand for the Latin libra pondo, which translates as "pound by weight." The abbreviation they used was lb, which was sometimes misread as 16. So, scribes took to drawing a line through the top of the two letters, which over time developed into the now familiar #. In the 1960s, the pound sign was chosen by Bell Laboratories to be a function key on their newly designed telephone keypad. (The Bell Labs team fondly nicknamed the symbol the “octothorpe,” possibly in honor of athlete Jim Thorpe.) Fast-forward to 2007, when early Twitter users wanted to be able to group and filter their feeds, so developer Chris Messina suggested they appropriate the method used in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) whereby users employed the pound sign or "hashtag" to signpost what they were chatting about. (Programmers knew the symbol as the hash, which was now being used to "tag" content.) This simple method soon caught on, and today the hashtag has become indelibly linked to the rise of social media.

4. ELLIPSIS // …

Originally, periods of silence were marked textually with a series of hyphens, but today the symbol of choice is the , a.k.a. the ellipsis. Dr. Anne Toner of Cambridge University spent years researching the ellipsis and finally discovered what she thinks is its first use—an English translation of Roman dramatist Terence’s play Andria printed in 1588. Although the play used hyphens instead of dots, the general idea caught on rapidly. (Toner notes that although there are only four “ellipses” in the 1588 translation, there are 29 in the 1627 version.) By the 18th century, dots started to replace the dashes, which an assistant professor from Southeastern University suggests may be connected to a medieval piece of punctuation called subpuncting or underdotting, which generally indicated something was incorrectly copied.

5. AMPERSAND // &

Ampersand symbol on an old metal block
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The ampersand originated in Latin when the word et (meaning and) was written in cursive script as a ligature (in which one or more letters are written together as a single glyph). One of the earliest examples was found daubed in graffiti on the walls of a house in Pompeii, where it was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. By the 8th century the ampersand became a recognizably distinct character, but the word ampersand did not come into use until the late 18th/19th century, when English school children would recite "and per se and" meaning “and by itself means and” to help remember the symbol (per se being Latin for "by itself"). One of the most thorough investigations into the typographic history of the ampersand comes courtesy of German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, who in 1953 published The am­persand: its ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment, in which he collected numerous examples of the ampersand from the 1st century onwards, visually charting its developing form.

6. PLUS SIGN // +

A variety of ceramic plus signs
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The plus sign used for addition in mathematics likely derives from a shorthand ligature for the Latin et meaning “and” and was probably in use for a long time before a surviving example appeared in print. One candidate for the earliest surviving usage is in French philosopher and polymath Nicole Oresme's Algorismus proportionum, a manuscript handwritten between 1356 and 1361, although scholars debate whether it's a true plus symbol. The first use of a plus sign in a printed book is more definitive, and can be found in a 1489 edition of Johannes Widmann’s Mercantile Arithmetic. Widmann also uses the minus sign for the first time in print in this volume—although both plus and minus signs relate not to addition and subtraction but to surpluses and deficits in business accounting. After this usage, the plus sign began to appear more frequently in German mathematical texts, and first appeared in an English text in 1557 in Robert Recorde’s The Whetstone of Witte—which also introduced the equals sign.

13 Things You Didn't Know About Sam Goody

Joe Wolf, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Joe Wolf, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Sam Goody dominated the music marketplace for decades, but after several buyouts and mergers, the once-ubiquitous retailer dwindled to a few storefronts before finally fading into mall history.

1. SAM GOODY WAS A REAL GUY.

The man who founded the ubiquitous mall chain was born Samuel Gutowitz on February 25, 1904. Friends and family dubbed him “Goody” when he was just a child; according to the The New York Times, Gutowitz eventually made the moniker his legal name.

2. INSPIRATION STRUCK AFTER GOODY ACQUIRED RECORDS FOR A CUSTOMER.

Though Goody had entrepreneurial ambitions from a young age, he wasn’t always in the music business. One of his first ventures was a toy and novelty store in lower Manhattan. In 1938, a customer stopped into his shop looking for old records of Enrico Caruso, Alma Gluck, and Paul Reimers. Goody was perplexed—“I thought [records] went out with the dodo birds,” he said—but promised to deliver for his customer. Goody recalled a stack of old 78-rpm disks in the basement of his apartment building in Washington Heights, so he went home and offered his landlord a can of beer in exchange for the pile of junk. (Over the years, Goody also said the exchange cost him three cigars.) After cleaning the records, Goody resold them for a whopping $25—and realized he was in the wrong business.

3. IN THE EARLY YEARS, SAM GOODY RAN PLENTY OF OFFBEAT PROMOTIONS.

When long-play records first hit the market, Goody courted customers by giving complementary turntables to anyone who spent more than $25. He ended up giving away 40,000 of the new-fangled devices—but in spite of the incredible cost to his company, Goody considered the promotion a success. “That meant 40,000 new customers,” he said.

Not all of his promotions were music-related. Goody once purchased 400,000 silver dollars and gave them to customers who spent $15. When the promotion proved successful, he repeated it with half-dollars, buying 400,000 JFK 50-cent pieces to give to customers spending $10. Though the gimmick worked, Goody later had some regrets about the promo. “I should have kept the silver dollars and given away the business,” he said. “When the silver price jumped like never before, I could have gotten $10 million for my $500,000 purchase.”

4. HIS FLAGSHIP STORE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR 7 PERCENT OF U.S. RECORD SALES.

The unique promotions clearly worked. Goody’s flagship store on West 49th Street was constantly deluged with customers—up to 4000 a day. In 1955, business was booming to the point that the flagship location sold 7 percent of the 33 1/3-rpm disks in the entire nation, with a gross income of close to $4 million.

5. SAM GOODY PRICES WERE SO LOW THAT THEY “ROCKED” THE COMPETITION.

Not all of Goody’s promotions were gimmicks. He also managed to undercut his competition: One 1962 advertisement offered three LPs for $7.99 compared to a $13 price tag, or $4.49 per record, at Goody's competitors (in today's money, that would be a savings of $45 dollars, or $15 per LP). When Goody took an ad out in the Western edition of The New York Times advertising Bob Newhart albums for $1.89, his competitors were angry. “What does Goody pay for this product to be able to sell it for less than I can buy it?” one competitor complained to Billboard Music Week in 1962.

6. SAM GOODY SALESPEOPLE WERE INCREDIBLY KNOWLEDGEABLE.

To have a job at the Sam Goody flagship store, employees had to prove they possessed a vast knowledge of music. Being well-versed in top 40 hits wouldn’t cut it; Goody employees had encyclopedic knowledge of all things music, from opera to punk. And he paid them well to do it—according to one employee who worked there, even part-timers received medical insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, and retirement benefits.

7. GOODY SOLD OUT TO THE AMERICAN CAN COMPANY.

In 1978, Goody sold all of his stores to the American Can Company, which owned another mall-centric music store that was one of Goody’s biggest competitors: Musicland. It was under American Can leadership that Goody became a staple in shopping malls across the U.S., with store numbers ballooning to 250 nationally. Goody stayed on as a consultant with American Can for five years, earning an annual salary of just $35,000.

8. HE SOLD THE BUSINESS TO SAVE HIS FAMILY.

Sam Goody’s 26-store empire had a stellar reputation: Low prices, vast inventory, knowledgeable salespeople, $60 million in sales. So why did he cut the whole thing loose for just $5.5 million in 1978? According to Goody, he gave the company away “cheap” because of his sons, Howard and Barry. "They loved each other then and they still do," he later said. "But they competed with each other on everything and soon even the help was taking sides. I could only see them breaking it all apart. So I sold the company."

9. THE COMPANY FACED AN EARLY ANTI-PIRACY SUIT.

Music piracy wasn’t invented with Napster—illegal tapes flooded the market long before the internet made music sharing commonplace. In 1981, Sam Goody Inc. faced a lawsuit for dealing counterfeit cassette and eight-track tapes. The suit alleged that more than 100,000 illegal tapes had been sold at Sam Goody stores, resulting in lost revenue of more than $1 million for artists like Olivia Newton-John, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon. In a plea agreement, the company pled no contest and was fined $10,000 for transporting counterfeit Grease soundtracks from Queens to Minnesota.

10. BEFORE AMERICAN IDOL, THERE WAS SAM GOODY’S “BANDEMONIUM” CONTEST.

Long before celebrity judges listened to local talent for reality TV purposes, Sam Goody tapped the unsigned band market for promotional purposes. For several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sam Goody held their "Bandemonium" contest, pitting acts against each other in a battle-of-the-bands-style competition. Winners included Bobby Llama and Darwin's Waiting Room.

11. IN 2000, SAM GOODY GOT SOLD AGAIN.

The American Can Company sold Musicland and Sam Goody to Best Buy for a cool $425 million in 2000. But the relationship didn’t last long. By 2006, the stores were sold to another competitor, Trans World Entertainment. Trans World eventually converted all of the Sam Goody locations into f.y.e. stores—except for one.

12. THE LAST SAM GOODY STORE CLOSED ON OCTOBER 31, 2012.

The last Sam Goody holdout, located in San Diego, shuttered its windows on Halloween 2012. According to a company exec, the single store remained partly because the giant neon signs bearing the company logo were simply not economical to replace in that particular location.

13. A "ROUGH TRADE" RECORD STORE WAS REBRANDED AS SAM GOODY IN 2015 FOR AN HBO PROJECT.

Your eyes didn't deceive you if you think you spotted a retro-looking Sam Goody store in Brooklyn in 2015. A British-based record store called Rough Trade agreed to allow a temporary redesign in order to accommodate the production of Vinyl, an HBO drama executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.

30 Stores That Will Be Closed on Thanksgiving

iStock.com, zoom-zoom
iStock.com, zoom-zoom

In recent years, the Black Friday craze has inched further and further into Thanksgiving. With stores opening as early as 5 p.m. on Thursday, festive dinners are being overshadowed by shopping frenzies. Retailers like to point the blame at consumers—according to the National Retail Federation, almost six in 10 Americans plan to shop Thanksgiving weekend—but opening a day early also runs the risk of cannibalizing sales that could have been made on Friday. Furthermore, with stores open the day before, the idea of going shopping in the middle of the night for already picked-over merchandise seems unnecessary.

But there are still stores that allow workers to stay home and enjoy the holiday. BestBlackFriday.com keeps a running (and updated) list of which companies will not be open on Thanksgiving. 

1. DSW

Photo of DSW Shoe store
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP, Getty Images

DSW employees can kick off their (well-priced) shoes and settle in for a holiday spent with friends and family; all of the chain's stores will be closed on Thanksgiving.

2. COSTCO

costco warehouse
iStock.com, slobo

The warehouse club has always had a reputation for being good to its employees. This Thanksgiving, Costco's 200,000-plus team members will have the opportunity to spend the holiday with their families (same goes for Christmas and New Year's Day).

3. NORDSTROM

Nordstrom storefront
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Nordstrom won't be open for business on Thanksgiving, but some employees will still be coming in for work. "[F]or the past 40+ years, some of our employees work on Thanksgiving eve and into the wee hours of the morning on Thanksgiving Day to decorate our stores with our holiday trim," a company spokesperson told ThinkProgress in 2014. "This is mostly a group of employees who have volunteered to be there and some bring along relatives or friends to join in. We'll also have a small team working in our Nordstrom.com Call Centers on Thanksgiving to serve the many customers who shop online that day."

4. DILLARD'S

A Dillard's storefront
iStock.com, Lee Walters

In 2014, a Dillard's spokesperson told ThinkProgress, "We choose to remain closed on Thanksgiving in longstanding tradition of honoring of our customers' and associates' time with family."

5. BJ'S WHOLESALE CLUB

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BJ’s Wholesale Club will be closed Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving gives family and friends the chance to spend time together," Chris Baldwin, the company's president and CEO, said in a press release in late September. "We're committed to letting our team members enjoy the holiday, and we'll be ready bright and early for our biggest Black Friday ever."

6. BURLINGTON

A Burlington storefront
iStock.com, krblokhin

"Thanksgiving is more than turkey. Or football. Or sleeping in," the company formerly known as Burlington Coat Factory wrote in a blog post. "It’s a time to reflect. To be thankful and appreciate what we have. To celebrate and share with family and friends near and far. That’s why Burlington stores are closed on Thanksgiving Day, so our customers and associates can enjoy time with their friends and family near and far."

7. REI

REI store in Seattle
Suzi Pratt, Getty Images for REI

REI will close all of its 151 stores for both Thanksgiving and Black Friday—yet all 12,000 of the retailer's employees, including hourly workers, will be paid to embrace the company's mission of getting people outdoors. "When you look at retail today, this playbook of promotions and consumerism, it's not working," REI chief executive Jerry Stritzke told Fortune. "It feels like it's lost momentum since then."

8. SUR LA TABLE

Scott Mindeaux via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Better make sure you've got all the Thanksgiving Day kitchen appliances and tools you need before the big day; kitchenware haven Sur La Table will be closed.

9. CRATE & BARREL

Crate & Barrel storefront
iStock.com, RiverNorthPhotography

Crate & Barrel employees will be staying home on Thanksgiving this year.

10. JO-ANN FABRICS AND CRAFTS

Jo-Ann Fabrics storefront
iStock.com, RiverNorthPhotography

Your arts and crafts projects will have to wait until Friday: Being closed on Thanksgiving has been a long-held tradition for Jo-Ann's stores.

11. T.J. MAXX

Getty Images

"We feel so strongly about our employees spending Thanksgiving with their families," T.J. Maxx and Marshalls spokeswoman Doreen Thompson said in 2013. "And we don't anticipate this changing in the future."

12. MARSHALLS

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Marshalls, like T.J. Maxx, is owned by TJX and will therefore also be closed.

13. PIER 1 IMPORTS

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For the past couple of years, Pier 1 Imports has decided to stay closed for the holiday.

14. PUBLIX

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You'll have to buy your last-minute Thanksgiving fixings somewhere other than Publix.

15. SIERRA TRADING POST

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“As in past years, Sierra Trading Post stores will be closed on Thanksgiving so our associates can enjoy the holiday with family and friends,” a company spokesperson said.

16. BARNES & NOBLE

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Barnes & Noble wants its employees to enjoy the holiday with their families (then curl up with a good book).

17. SAM'S CLUB

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Sam's Club is closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

18. IKEA

IKEA storefront
iStock.com, TonyBaggett

If you’re craving Swedish meatballs instead of turkey (or, you know, you really need an ottoman), you’ll have to wait it out. Most IKEA locations in the U.S. will be closed on Thanksgiving so employees can spend time with family and friends.

19. THE HOME DEPOT

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The Home Depot stays closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

20. PATAGONIA

Patagonia store window
iStock.com, electravk

In 2014, when asked why Patagonia stores close on Thanksgiving, a spokesperson responded, “It’s a holiday—we’re closed!”

21. STAPLES 

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It wasn't until 2015 that Staples decided to close its stores on Turkey Day. “We want our customers and associates to enjoy Thanksgiving their own way,” former company president Demos Parneros said in a press release at the time of the announcement.

22. PETSMART

PetSmart storefront
iStock.com, J. Michael Jones

Better make sure you've got enough catnip and dog treats to last the day; PetSmart will be closed.

23. LOWE'S

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The home improvement giant gives its employees Thanksgiving Day off to spend with their families. 

24. GUITAR CENTER

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The musical instrument retailer will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. The rocking will recommence on Friday morning.

25. MALL OF AMERICA

Mall of America sign out front
iStock.com, Wolterk

By closing its doors on Thanksgiving, the Mall of America has brought a bit of excitement back to Black Friday. "The energy has been extremely high," director of public relations Dan Jasper told CNBC in 2016. "It's a completely different vibe than the past few years."

26. THE CONTAINER STORE

The Container Store storefront
iStock.com, Nicolas McComber

In 2015, The Container Store posted a statement on its blog explaining why they choose to close on Thanksgiving Day: "We love seeing all of our customers—don’t get us wrong! But we feel it’s more important for all of our employees to be able to spend this holiday with their families, in order to recharge and renew and come back to work ready to take on the holiday season!"

27. NEIMAN MARCUS

Neiman Marcus storefront
iStock.com, RiverNorthPhotography

The luxury department store will be closed for Thanksgiving. But if you're so inclined, you can order a Thanksgiving dinner for 12 from them for a cool $495.

28. PETCO

Petco storefront
iStock.com, Miosotis Jade
PETCO employees will be spending the holiday home with their own pets this year.

29. OUTDOOR RESEARCH

iStock

In 2016, the outdoor apparel and gear company said it would be joining REI in its #OptOutside initiative, and will be closed on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. They're repeating the newfound tradition again this year.

30. OFFICE DEPOT

Office Depot storefront
iStock.com, clearstockconcepts

"As we evaluated our store hours for this holiday and weighed the business and personal considerations, we decided it was best to provide our associates with the day off to spend time with family and friends by closing our retail stores on Thanksgiving Day," Office Depot's former COO Troy Rice said in a 2016 press release. They're doing the same this year as well.

This is just a fraction of the list of stores deciding to stay closed on Thanksgiving. Check out of the full list on BestBlackFriday.com

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