Friday, September 24th, is National Punctuation Day. Here at the American Antiquarian Society, we take our commas and semi-colons quite seriously. We hold in our collection numerous grammar manuals, essays, school books, and pamphlets on the correct use of the English language, dating from the 1780s right on up to 1875. However, being the curator of Graphic Arts, I am especially interested in the use of punctuation on broadsides in our collection. A typesetter’s box has space for all of the punctuation marks, but some printers seemed to be more inclined to use the marks to make, sorry for the pun, their point.
Advertisers, especially theater promoters and circus printers, are the most frequent users of excitable punctuation on their material. The designer of an 1860 broadside advertising a tight rope walker in Worcester increases the use of exclamation points as he moves down the sheet, using multiple points after each line. An 1845 broadside in the collection telling of a recent murder uses various sized type and punctuation to draw the eye. The large type at the top of the sheet is accompanied by an equally large exclamation point. Keep in mind that the $2,000 reward offered is the equivalent of $58,000 in today’s dollars – certainly something that merited exclamation!
In addition to the always eye-catching exclamation point, there are numerous ballad broadsides set in poetic lines ending with commas, semi-colons, dashes, and ellipses, including the 1772 song Love in a tub, or, –– The merchant outwitted by the vintner (commas and dashes right there in the title!). Early printings such as this example do not necessarily follow modern punctuation standards set forth by publications such as the Chicago Manual of Style, but they get the point across with solid attention to design, making it easy for the eye to read each line and indicating pauses.
So go on out and celebrate National Punctuation Day in whatever manner you choose. Last year, contestants made food in the shape of their favorite mark – a meatloaf shaped like a question mark was a popular entry. This year school students, copy editors, and writers are entering haiku poetry about punctuation on the National Punctuation Day website. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eye out for posters and signs, the modern equivalent of the early broadside. You never know when you might see multiple exclamation points crying out from the wall at the vet’s office (“Lost dog!!!!!!!”) or question marks on the side of a city building (“Did you vote today?”) or on a billboard for pest control looming over the highway on your commute (“Got ants?”).