A collection of recommendable typeface with a connection to Germany.
By Ralf Herrmann
The sharp s (or “Eszett” as it is called in German) is a letter of the alphabet in Germany and Austria. The Unicode casing rules state: “The German es-zed is special”. Indeed it is! Its (still not fully explained) history is full of twists and today’s understanding of this history is often full of misunderstandings. The origins of this character won’t be the discussed in detail in this article. Instead I will focus on the stylistic options which have resulted from the recent history.
Sharp s variations for an alphabet in a lettering/calligraphy book from the 1930s by Willy Schumann
Today there are two standard models for the design of the ß character. They are explained at first and are recommendable for most of today’s typefaces.
1. The ſs Ligature Design
This design is both very old and rather new at the same time. It was used for centuries across Europe, especially in cursive writing, either as a purely stylistic choice or in accordance with a typesetting practice which avoided a long s as the end of words and therefore displayed a double s (ſſ) as ſs, either visually connected or not.
ſs ligatures from Giovanbattista Palatino, from a 1578 compendium
Since this design in its connected form is so visually similar to the typical modern German ß, it is often mistaken as the actual origin of the German character. But using this design for German texts is a rather new practice, which only became typical since around the middle of the 20th century. At that time, the roman and italic type styles of the Latin script replaced blackletter and Kurrent for German texts and with that, the influence of blackletter on the design of German typefaces started to vanish. Typical German blackletter ligatures (such as ch, ck, tz) came out of use and the understanding of the ß character shifted slowly. In caps-only typesetting the ß would be set as SZ in the beginning of the 20th century, but later SS became more common and finally the only correct spelling—until the introduction of the capital sharp s.
Without the influence of blackletter, a German alphabet in the roman type style was now again more clearly based on designs from the time of Classicism and Renaissance and the historic ſs ligature became a perfect fit for the German ß—both in its design and the understanding of the character.
Using this ligature design is the typical choice for so-called humanistic typefaces, i.e. designs which have their roots in the traditional book typefaces of the Renaissance. Both serif and sans serif typefaces can use this design model of the sharp s character.
The ſs ligature design in Optima and Syntax
Designing the ß in this style is rather simple, since it really is just ſ and s connected with an arc. The connection however is mandatory today. While an unconnected design is a historic variation, it won’t be accepted by today’s readers.
The upper counter area is ofter narrower than the lower counter area, as it can be seen in the examples above. But there are also typefaces with a more prominent upper counter area, especially in italic styles.
The sharp s in Sabon
The arc and the s shape usually connect as one continuous curve, but there are a few typefaces which stress the different letter parts more clearly by making an abrupt change of direction. This can also work fine. But just to be clear: German readers without a background in typography see the ß as one character. Stressing ſ and s as individual parts of that design is neither expected nor necessarily helpful. Just as a W exposing its origin as ligature of two V is a possibility, but not necessarily helpful.
The sharp s in Utopia and Calibri
The ſ in its upright version might have a horizontal stroke on the left side and the ß then gets this stroke as well. This is a traditional design feature, but not really required. In my opinion, it only supports the confusion of ſ and f and therefore the horizontal stroke might also be omitted for ſ and ß in modern typefaces. Either way, ſ and ß should always follow the same principles.
And speaking of the long s: It will usually have a descender in the italic design, but not in the roman version. The same is true for the sharp s.
Upright and cursive styles of Tierra Nueva.
2. The Sulzbach Design
As already mentioned, German was mostly set in blackletter (or written in Kurrent) until the middle of the 20th century and the sharp s as German character was established and mandatory in these type and writing styles. When German was written or set in the roman type style, a counterpart for the blackletter ß wasn’t available for a long time. As a result we can find different alternative spellings until the end of the 19th century. For example: a word like “groß” (big) in blackletter could appear as gross, groſs or grosz in roman typefaces.
German book from 1795 in a roman typeface (Prillwitz Antiqua) using ſs where a blackletter text would always use ß.
Around 1900 an official German orthography was established and a committee of type founders and printers met to define rules regarding the design and use of German characters like ß, ö, ä, ü in upper and lower case. At that time, typesetting and writing German in the roman style had already gained popularity and there was a need to find solutions and regulations regarding the different practices used for blackletter and non-blackletter typesetting. Some differences were kept, some things were unified. The ſ character was kept for blackletter, but dropped for setting German in roman and italic typefaces. The ß on the other was understood as a character of its own, which had become so important, that it was decided to add it to all typefaces, not just blackletter ones as before. All German type foundries should add it to their roman and italic designs. The design proposal that was chosen had similarities with an unusual letter used in the 17th century by the printer Abraham Lichtenthaler in the city of Sulzbach and is therefore now known as “Sulzbacher Form” (Sulzbach design).
Sharp s in the Sulzbach design added to Walbaum Antiqua in the 20th century. In the time of Justus Erich Walbaum such a roman typeface had no sharp s.
The new design doesn’t include a clear s or z shape, but consists of a long s at the left side and two connected arcs on the right side. As a result, the letter often looks like an uppercase B to people not familiar with German. This design was applied to many German non-blackletter typefaces after 1903, including the traditional old-style and modern typefaces. It remains in use until today, but mostly for more geometric/constructed typefaces, where the simplicity of the two arcs works better than the flowing connection of the upper arc of the long s with a lowercase s.
Sharp s in Futura
The Sulzbach design can more easily use an upper counter area that is similar in size and as width as the lower counter area. A tear-shaped or ball-shaped terminal can be used for serif designs. The connection of the two arcs in the middle should reach to the left as far as necessary, to make the character legible, but not so far as to suggest a connection with the stem – after all, it is not a B. And of course the aperture at the bottom should not be closed.
Sharp S with teardrop terminal in this version of Bodoni
The Sulzbach design is also the standard model for German handwriting. It will usually be written with a descender and fonts might replicate this.
Sharp s in German in the historic Kurrent handwriting
Handwritten sharp s FF Schulschrift
The Schulbuch typeface is aimed at children learning to read and uses the descender of the handwritten sharp s.
The two models explained above should suffice to design a proper ß for almost all roman and italic typefaces, but there are more variations in existence. For the sake of completeness they are shown below. They should only be used where appropriate. An unusual design of the ß character can make a typeface unsuitable for setting German, especially when it is supposed to be used for copy texts. It’s often better to include uncommon/historic designs as stylistic alternates and put a standard ß in the default slot for this character (U+00DF).
The beautiful sharp s in the metal version of Bernhard Schönschrift (1925)
The unusual sharp s in Ratio-Latein (1923)
Historic Variation: The “Blackletter ß”
With German blackletter and non-blackletter typefaces being used side by side since the end of the 19th century, type designers also started to mix elements of the two.
The sharp s in blackletter
Blackletter fonts became more simplified and the letter skeletons of the early blackletter fonts became more popular, which were still closer to the design of the roman letter style. And roman typefaces from German foundries started to “look more German” in the first half of the 20th century. The mandatory ligatures of blackletter typesetting were often added to the character set of the roman typefaces and the design of individual letters was also borrowed from blackletter typefaces. A typical case for that is the sharp s character. Many, but not all typefaces used the recommended Sulzbach design. A design as a ligature of a long s with something like a 3 with a flat top resembled the typical look of a blackletter ß and also became a popular choice until the middle of the 20th century.
The blackletter-inspired sharp s in Erbar
Meister-Kursiv by Herbert Thannhaeuser, 1952
Technotyp by Herbert Thannhaeuser, 1948
Not using a descender is also possible for this kind of sharp s
Because the “blackletter sharp s” in roman typefaces is typical for the first half of the 20th century, its use can still evoke a connection with that time. It appears—as default or stylistic alternative—in a few modern typefaces as well (e.g. FF Kava, Verlag, Metric, DIN Next Slab) and is legible within a word context, but it is not something that works for every font or use case.
The examples shown above represent the most typical design of this “blackletter sharp s” approach. But as a variation, some typefaces also use a design that looks like a 3 with two arcs or a z design on the right side of the ligature. These designs might not work so well for today’s readers.
The sharp s in Ehmcke Antiqua (1909), which is also in the digital versions named Carlton.
The URW++ version of Bodoni
While used occasionally in the 20th century—a literal Eszett (“sz”) ligature is not recommendable today.
Historic Variation: The Connected Script ſs Ligature
I already explained the ligature of a long s and a round s where the top part of the long s is used to make the connection to the round s. But in connected cursive writing there is also a way of writing a regular long s and then making a connection from the bottom, usually as extension of a descender loop in the long s.
This style can also be found across Europe and across different languages over several centuries. It usually just represents a double s, but in a German text that isn’t written with a long s as individual character, this design represents the sharp s, as seen in the following examples.
From an original type specimen booklet of Justus Erich Walbaum from the early 19th century. “daß” and “bloß” are typeset as “daſs” and “bloſs”.
This design can be found in use until the 20th century, but it not common anymore and will probably confuse many of today’s readers of German.
An undated German school poster shows the connected script ſs ligature as alternative to the regular ß in the Sulzbach design.
By Ralf Herrmann
In 2015 I published a revival of Elfen-Fraktur—a unique monolinear blackletter typeface. With the release of Krimhilde I am continuing on this path. Elfen-Fraktur was originally published in 1919—the year the Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar. The Bauhaus designers had radical ideas about typography. They tried to reduce the letterforms to the most simple geometric shapes and even proposed to stop using uppercase and lowercase together in favor of one alphabet. Their experimental designs didn’t came into broad use, but type designers outside the Bauhaus incorporated some of the ideas. This gave birth to the category of the “geometric sans”, which remains popular until today. Erbar-Grotesk (by Jakob Erbar released at Ludwig & Mayer), Kabel (by Rudolf Koch released at Gebr. Klingspor) and Futura (by Paul Renner released at Bauersche Gießerei) are typical and successful examples of this category.
While blackletter was still in broad use during that time, the type modernization of the 1920s was almost exclusively applied to non-blackletter or “roman” typefaces—called Antiqua in German. As Jan Tschichold put it in his New Typography manifest:
❝ None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time.❞
In the 1930s, designers and type foundries started to consider to replicate the popular modernization of sans-serif designs in the category of blackletter typefaces. But how should this be done? The typical German blackletter design of this time was the Fraktur—a rather calligraphic, broad-nip pen design, that wasn’t very suitable to be reduced to simple geometric shapes. So the designers came up with a different approach: They went back to the origins of blackletter—the textura of the Gothic period. Those designs already used a very simple and geometric letter skeleton, but often had elaborate decorations at the same time. By stripping all the decorations, a modern blackletter look was created. Several of these typefaces started to appear from 1933 onwards, creating a new blackletter category.
Modern German blackletter in the 1930s. Left: Element typeface by Max Bittrof. Right: Hindenburg Lettering by Georg Wagner
But there was another benefit in going back to the origins of blackletter. At that time, roman and blackletter designs were much closer together. So using the old textura letter skeletons bridged the gap between roman and blackletter designs. This contributed to the modern look and reduced legibility concerns.
And this brings us back to Krimhilde. Its designer Albert Auspurg also tried to bridge the gap between blackletter and roman typefaces to create modern and legible letters. But he chose a different path to achieve this. Instead of going with textura letter shapes, he merged the geometric sans with Fraktur in a rather unique way. The lowercase letters of Krimhilde use roman proportions and geometric designs, just as typefaces like Futura. But where possible, a blackletter treatment is added as well. The angular stroke endings are an example of this. The uppercase letters of Krimhilde use the typical Fraktur designs, but in an unusual monolinear application.
Type specimen images of the metal type version of Krimhilde published by Ludwig & Mayer
Krimhilde was published in a regular and a bold style. It didn’t became very successful in the 1930s. After World War II, blackletter came out of use in Germany and so there was little demand for any of the modern blackletter fonts from the 1930s. Krimhilde was dropped from the catalogs of the type foundry Ludwig & Mayer and became forgotten.
Krimhilde from FDI Type, released in 2018
But I believe Krimhilde has its charm and so I decided to revive it. Just as with Elfen-Fraktur, I did not just digitize the outlines from scans. Instead I recreated both the regular and bold design by starting with just the letter skeletons. And I also created two versions again: version A is close to the original design with all its traditional blackletter shapes. Of course the fonts also include a long s (ſ) and the German blackletter ligatures such as ch/ck/ſch/tt and tz as stylistic set. Version B swaps some letters with roman letter shapes, which are more legible to readers not familiar with the traditional blackletter designs.
Version A and B of the new Krimhilde
In addition to the basic set (regular and bold as version A and B), I added some display styles to use Krimhilde as layer font with multiple colors. There is a shadow and a fill style available for the regular and the bold version and an outline style just for the bold versions. All Krimhilde styles have a full Latin 1 character set.
Krimhilde at Fontspring Krimhilde at FDI Type Foundry
By Ralf Herrmann
The “black” in the English term blackletter refers to usually very dark appearance of these kind of typefaces. But this appearance isn’t really the defining characteristic. The German term “Gebrochene Schrift” (broken script) says it much better. In blackletter fonts, elements which used to be rounded in preceding Latin designs were broken down to individual line segments with emphasised sharp corners. And since this type style developed somewhat independently of the Roman type style we use until today, blackletter developed some letter skeletons, which greatly differ from the Roman design and make them hard to read for many today.
In Germany blackletter fonts were in broad use until the middle of the 20th century. The most used category of blackletter fonts was Fraktur—a much more open and legible design than the original dark and narrow blackletter fonts in medieval books. Fraktur fonts were available in a great variety of designs—from thin and delicate calligraphic typefaces to bold and geometric. But they all shared one characteristic: the typical change of weight caused by the use of a broad-nip pen. This feature could almost be understood as a necessity to make blackletter fonts work. Experimental monolinear blackletter fonts appeared occasionally like in this booklet for sign painters from a German pen maker who also sold pens for monolinear writing.
But such designs rarely made it into typefaces. The only two know designs appeared around 1920: The wobbly Lehmann-Fraktur and Elfen-Fraktur from an otherwise unknown designer listed as M Beck.
Elfen-Fraktur was originally published by the foundry H. Hoffmeister, which was later absorbed by D. Stempel, one of the largest type foundries in Europe at that time. The typeface then appeared in Stempel’s catalogue of 1925—with around 1200 pages one of the biggest type specimen book ever produced.
Elfen-Fraktur in the 1925 Stempel catalog
When I got my copy of this book and browsed through it, Elfen-Fraktur was the one design that fascinated me the most—but more for it’s uniqueness and peculiarities than its quality. It was by no means a perfect design. It’s easy to see how the designer struggled with the design concept. While it has a monolinear look, it actually can’t be written. The designer has added little corners and weight changes throughout the design to make it work as a blackletter typefaces.
An ad in Elfen-Fraktur, published in a German newspaper in 1928
Even with the huge market share of Stempel, the typeface wasn’t used very often and is almost forgotten today. So a while ago I began to digitize and revamp it. The new version of Elfen-Fraktur is now available via FDI Type. But I didn’t actually trace the outlines to make a perfect copy of the original. Instead, I used the specialty of the original design and drew all letter from scratch as monolinear letters and then refined the details.
The FDI version of Elfen-Fraktur comes in two versions. Style A sticks rather close to the original letter skeletons. In combination with the discretionary ligatures it is perfect for setting German texts according to traditional blackletter and orthography rules. Style B contains alternative letters which make the typeface more legible for readers, who don’t have experience in reading Fraktur. Both sets are otherwise identical and contain the full Western character set (Win1252/Mac Roman).
A free bonus is a set of 22 decorative border elements, which can be used in combination with Elfen-Fraktur or any other typeface. The border elements can directly be typed on the keyboard (letters a to v). The size of the elements (including the space character) is based on the em-square. So by keeping the tracking to zero and the line height identical to the font size the border elements will always connect seamlessly.
Elfen-Fraktur at FDI Type Elfen-Fraktur at MyFonts
By Ralf Herrmann
Over the entire 20th century the German alphabet officially consisted of 30 lowercase characters, but only 29 uppercase letters. How could that happen?
By Member Ref…
There's a lot of info online on how the long s (ſ) was used in past spelling, but not a lot about why it appears in the alternate forms it does, and what the expectations are today in modern type design if and when (rarely ever) its included or used.
I've linked a few samples below, including ligatures ( long s+small roman s, which is often mistaken for the Esszett) for reference (nb. the normal ff ligature is included in comparison to the ſſ ligature).
The alternation between Regular & Italic is of course the descender, which follows the same change as the lowercase 'f' between Regular & Italic.
The inconsistent aspect which I'm highly curious about, and for which no apparent explanation is available to me, is the left-hand bar which appears on some typefaces, and not on others, or features only in either the Italic or Regular of the given type.
What are your thoughts on these reasons? And on good design for the long s?