The Regency:   "So long, Long S"

As with many other curious things which have been chronicled here, the decade of the Regency saw the last lingering use of the Long S, at least in print. Most people continued to use it in those documents which they wrote by hand, regardless of its demise on the printed page.

The Long S, what it was, its origins, its rules of usage and how it passed into history … almost.

Many of you have probably seen a Long s or twelve, if you have seen or read any seventeenth- or eighteenth-century documents. However, you might not have known the name of that letter even if you know what it looks like. The Long or medial s looks like a miniscule or lower-case f, but the horizontal stroke is very short and visible only on the left side of the vertical stroke for regular fonts. There is no horizontal stroke at all on Italic fonts. There was also no horizontal stroke when the Long s was hand-written. The s with which we are familiar today was called the round or terminal s.

The roots of the Long s go back to the ancient Roman Cursive scripts which were used to write Old English and other non-Roman languages within the Roman empire. At that time, the Long s was used to represent a slightly different s-sound which was used in Old and Middle English. Say the words "reason" or "husband," and you can hear that slightly hard sound, as compared to words like "silk" or "rest," which have the softer sound. The Long s was adopted as part the alphabets of most European languages, including English. It continued to be used in hand-written scripts through the Middle Ages, though by then it had lost its connection to the hard s sound. It was so firmly ensconced that it continued to be used when moveable type was introduced. Through all these long centuries, the rules for the use of the Long s changed with time and from country to country.

Andrew West has posted a full list of the rules for the Long s at the BabelStone blog. There you can see examples of the use of the Long s as well as the complete the rules for each country. The list of rules for the use of the Long s in English is the longest, as there were a number of rules about the use of the Long s with certain letters. This post also includes the special rules for the use of the Long s in the early printed books. Although these rules appear rather complex to us, the alternate names of each letter are reminders of the basic rules of where they were to be placed in a word. The Long or medial s should be used at the beginning or in the middle of a word. The round or terminal s was to be used at the end of a word.

The Long s began to fall out of favor in France in the 1780s, but continued in use in England through the end of the eighteenth century. As literacy expanded in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, more books and periodicals were published. But paper was expensive, so publishers wanted to get as much text on each page as possible by reducing the leading between the lines. At this time, actual lead strips were placed between each line of text, but the wider the strips, the fewer lines of text could be placed on a page. This compression of the type on the page made it very difficult to distinguish between the long s and the lower case f, making the text hard to read. In addition, there were kerning problems with a number of letter combinations using the Long s. This required that separate ligatures for each combination had to be cast and kept available in the type cases. This significantly increased the printer’s costs. Slowly, printers began dropping the Long s from their font sets.

Perhaps the greatest blow to the Long s came on 10 September 1803, when John Walter II, who had recently succeeded his father as editor of The Times, instituted the use of a modern typeface to print the newspaper. This new typeface had no Long s or any of the multi-letter ligatures that so complicated typesetting. This change significantly improved the readability of the paper as well as drastically reducing typesetting effort at a time when page composition was still done by hand. Other printers, following the lead of The Times, began to switch to modern typefaces.

The Long s did not immediatly disappear from print completely. It was a gradual process, as each printer could afford to replace a font set, they tended to acquire the modern typefaces which did not include the Long s or the multi-letter ligatures. The more successful printers made these changes sooner than printers who could not afford to replace fonts until they were worn out. So there were still some printers using the Long s in the books and other documents they printed during the Regency. However, the Long s continued in use in hand-writing till nearly the end of the nineteenth century. During the Regency, it was used with essentially the same rules as those listed at BabelStone. Later in the century, it was most commonly used only with double s combinations at the ends of words. I have never been privileged to see any documents hand-written by Jane Austen, but I suspect, she, like nearly everyone else at that time, used the Long s in her writing. However, some of the first editions of her novels are online at Google Books. None of those which I have examined include the Long s in the text. This would seem to indicate that her publishers were successful enough to afford the new sets of fonts with modern typefaces without the Long s.

It was a long "so long" for the Long s, stretching through most of the nineteenth century. And though the Long s is now long gone from modern typefaces and handwriting, shades of this lost letter-form still remain. One of the long-lost secrets of the Long s is that right up to the decimalization of the currency of Britain, the Long s was the symbol for the shilling, a coin worth twelve pence, and referred to as a bob. The Long s was also the symbol for the shilling during the Regency, and continued to be used when hand-written. But when the Long s was dropped from font sets, how was it to be indicated in print? For some reason, printers chose not to substitute the round s, but instead they used the back-slash (/), apparently deciding it most closely approximated the Long s. Another Long s secret which may be useful to anyone who searches the books available at Google Books is that their search engine interprets the Long s as a lower case f. Therefore, if you should search on the word "wife" you will, of course, get many books which contain that word, but you will probably also get many eighteenth-century books which contain the word "wise" as well, since the Google search engine cannot tell the difference. This can be annoying, but it can also have its uses. If you were looking for books which use the Long s, you could search on terms like "hufband" or "Congrefs" or "reafon" and the search results will include a rich selection of books printed using old typefaces. The Long s may be gone, but it is not quite forgotten.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The Regency:   "So long, Long S"

  1. Pingback: Sir William Knighton: Prinny’s Éminence Grise? | The Regency Redingote

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    At Long S — A Victim of Efficiency, you can read an interesting take on how efficiency killed the Long s. Even more interesting, the author ponders if it might be possible, with the use of modern technology, to once again return to the use of the Long s.

  3. KWillow says:

    When I tidy up my Ackermann’s fashion plates (and Costume Parisien, La Bell, etc) I often re-write the long S as an every day s. I often wondered why the heck they used an “f” instead of an s. Ha! Now I know. Thank you.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I, too, thought it was a “f” when I first began reading period documents. Fortunately, I had taken up calligraphy at about the same time and came across an eighteenth-century penmanship manual, in which I discovered it was actually a separate letter. The librarian in the Rare Book room at my university library most kindly told me some of the story and over the years, I added to my understanding of this now almost forgotten letter.


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