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The Long S

in Colonial Sense




Long S - Title page of John Milton's Paradise Lost  1668
Title page of John Milton's Paradise Lost 1668
Some of our
readers at Colonial Sense are probably wondering why we use a long f on the word "Sense" of our logo. Is the use of the f actually colonial in nature? We have some answers for you. Many readers of early American printed material have been either charmed or confused by the curious f which resembles a contemporary f. The modern cook, following a colonial recipe for "Fricaffee of Chicken," or, the craftsperson, pondering the present availability of beefwax or brafs, certainly smiles at this quaint bit of Americana, which is not American at all. The f-shaped long s appeared at a very early date on cursive Roman scripts, and can be seen in both Old Roman cursive from the 1st-3rd century to a New Roman Cursive from the late 3rd-7th century.

The Merovingian which was developed in France during the 7th century, the Visigothic which was developed in Spain during the 7th century, the Carolingian which was developed at the court of Charlemagne at the end of the 8th century, and Beneventan which was developed in southern Italy during the 8th century all used the long form of s in their medieval scripts. The short form was not included in alphabet designs until the 12th-century development of black letter or Gothic script. The North European black letter style became so popular that it was used rather exclusively during the following two centuries. Then, when writing trends moved back toward Roman designs in the 1500's, both the long and short s were preserved.

Long S - Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, Robert Dodsley's Triffles (London 1745)
Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, Robert Dodsley's Triffles (London 1745)
Regarding the rules for usage and the final elimination of the long s from modern type, however, there is much less specific information, primarily due to the fact that printing was and still is a highly-developed craft and manuscript was a serious art form. Skilled printers had personal theories of the economy and readability of the long s. Those educated in the art of script made individual judgments concerning esthetic appeal or the need to conserve paper space in writing. A careful study of the f usage permits a few following rules for the use of long s and short s in books in English, Welsh, and other languages published in England, Ireland, Scotland, and other English-speaking countries during the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • short s is used at the end of a word (e.g. his, complains, succeſs)
  • short s is used before an apostrophe (e.g. clos'd, us'd)
  • short s is used before the letter 'f' (e.g. ſatisfaction, misfortune, transfuſe, transfix, transfer, succeſsful)
  • short s is used after the letter 'f' (e.g. offset), although not if the word is hyphenated (e.g. off-ſet)
  • short s is used before the letter 'b' in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. husband, Shaftsbury), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. huſband, Shaftſbury)
  • short s is used before the letter 'k' in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. skin, ask, risk, masked), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. ſkin, aſk, riſk, maſked)
  • Compound words with the first element ending in double s and the second element beginning with s are normally and correctly written with a dividing hyphen (e.g. Croſs-ſtitch, Croſs-ſtaff), but very occasionally may be wriiten as a single word, in which case the middle letter 's' is written short (e.g. Croſsſtitch, croſsſtaff).
  • long s is used initially and medially except for the exceptions noted above (e.g. ſong, uſe, preſs, ſubſtitute)
  • long s is used before a hyphen at a line break (e.g. neceſ-ſary, pleaſ-ed), even when it would normally be a short s (e.g. Shaftſ-bury and huſband in a book where Shaftsbury and husband are normal), although exceptions do occur (e.g. Mansfield)
  • short s is used before a hyphen in compound words with the first element ending in the letter 's' (e.g. croſs-piece, croſs-examination, Preſswork, bird's-neſt)
  • long s is maintained in abbreviations such as ſ. for ſubſtantive, and Geneſ. for Geneſis (this rule means that it is practically impossible to implement fully correct automatic contextual substitution of long s at the font level)

  • By no means do these rules cover France, Italy, or Spain during the 17th and 18th century.

    In most types of hand-printed material, however, the science of the craft was lost to a writer's creative instincts, haste or limitation of paper. The Declaration of Independence contains at least five words occurring more than once within the text which exhibit an arbitrary usage of the two s forms; throughout the document, internal s's appear even more frequently than the called-for f. In casual correspondence, the cursive s was widely used, probably because of its simple formation.

    The long s was used in the vast majority of books published in English during the 17th and 18th centuries, but suddenly and dramatically fell out of fashion at the end of the 18th century, reflecting the widespread adoption of new, modern typefaces based on those developed by Bodini and Didot during the 1790s.

    Long S - John Bell's explanation in Shakespeare of omitting the long s
    John Bell's explanation in Shakespeare of omitting the long s
    Long S - A sample of colonial currency with the long s
    A sample of colonial currency with the long s
    The intentional exclusion first occurred in a major publication in 1785 with Englishman John Bell's printing of Shakespeare. In the ‘Prolegomena’ to his Shakespeare (1788) Bell explains why he omitted the long s. This was the aim of many printers of the late 18th century, when texts were commonly leaded. It also helped to avoid the confusion of long s with f. Over the next two years, the English Chronicle and the World which Bell published also made the change. The London Times followed suit in 1803, and the conservative Gentleman's Magazine had made the switch by 1808.

    The first American work which intentionally eliminated the f has not yet been pinpointed. However, it is known that T. and W. Bradford, Philadelphia printers and booksellers, had adopted Bell's technique by 1798. The evidence for this is a copy of a Spanish grammar book printed in that year. It is probably safe to assume, therefore, that the unknown first work was a slightly more glamorous topic and could have appeared some years before 1798

    Although throughout most of the 1790s the vast majority of English books continued to use long s, during the last two or three years of the century books printed using modern typefaces started to become widespread, and in 1801 short s books overtook long s books.

    As might be expected, the demise of long s in France seems to have occurred a little earlier than in England generally from the mid 1780s, and long s had been almost completely displaced by 1793.
    The ominous sign of death for long s was took place on September 10th 1803 when The Times newspaper quietly switched to a modern typeface with no long s or old fashion ligature, reforms instituted by John Walter the Second who became joint proprietor and exclusive manager of The Times at the beginning of 1803.

    Long S - Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac 1739
    Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac 1739
    Long S - The Instructor, George Fisher 1786
    The Instructor, George Fisher 1786

    Over the next decade, a widespread transition was achieved both in the colonies and abroad. The transition was only hindered by the cost of replacing old fonts and arguing of the esthetic appeal of the short s. Benjamin Franklin wrote to Noah Webster in 1789 complaining:
    ... And lately another fancy has induced some Printers to use the short round s instead of the long one, which formerly served well to distinguish a word readily by its varied appearance. Certainly omitting the prominent letter makes the line appear more even; but renders it less immediately legible; as paring all Men's Noses might smooth and level their Faces, but would render their Physiognomies less distinguishable.

    Long S - Ben Franklin's The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1741
    Ben Franklin's The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1741
    Long S - Ben Franklin's A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, &c. 1725
    Ben Franklin's A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, &c. 1725
    He went on to express a hope -that American printers would "avoid these fancied improvements," thereby making their editions "more agreeable to Foreigners in Europe and to the great advantage of our Bookselling Commerce."

    Franklin and the other traditionalists were ignored, for the popularity of the short s continued to grow. There was a resurgence of the f's popularity during the 1830's.But by the second half of the 19th century long s had entirely died out, except for the occasional deliberate antiquarian usage. The literature available on orthography is extensively researched and detailed. Colonial Sense has linked to a few sources for your further study.





    Source: Research & text bt Bryan Wright

    Related Links:

    BabelStone -- The Rules for Long S
    TypeFoundry -- Long S
    BabelStone -- The Long and the Short of the Letter S

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