Most ligatures are formed by the combination of the lowercase letter f and a subsequent letter—although the gorgeous Mrs Eaves typeface includes a few more unusual ones.
There’s an old letter that looks a lot like the lowercase f and that’s the long s.
Up until the 19th century, this was the default way of writing the letter s at the beginning or in the middle of words. Our letter s—called the short s—was mostly used when a word finished with an s or when an s followed an s (the word
Congress on The Declaration of Independence matches both criteria).
This looks like a regular ft ligature but actually it’s a long s followed by a t—look at the way the crossbar on the long s doesn’t go all the way across the vertical stem like it would on an f. Another dead give-away is the fact that the word being spelled is
On another headstone I found a ligature formed by the combination of a long s and the letter b, used to spell the word
While there is a corresponding f-based ligature, I can’t remember ever seeing it in the wild. The combination of f and b is rare in the English language. The only examples I can think of are compound words like
halfbreed; words more often spelled with a hyphen separating the f and the b.
My photographs of the subterranean ligatures didn’t turn out great—my little point’n’shoot camera isn’t very good with low-light conditions—so I whipped out my sketchbook, put a page in front of the letters and recorded some pencil rubbings for posterity.