If you’ve spent any time with 18th century literature as it was printed in the period, you’ve probably stumbled over the “long s” or ſ. In some typefaces, it looks so much like a lower case f that when I read it my mental voice sounds like it’s lisping. One reason the long s can be puzzling is that there are two rules in effect during this period, one for handwriting and one for printing.
Long S in Print
In printed books during most of the 18th century, ſ appears at the beginning and middle of words, while the now-familiar ‘short’ or ’round’ s only appears at the end of words. The Complete Letter-writer of 1778 expresses this rule slightly vaguely as:
The 1798 edition of The Polite Lady displays this use of long and short s, as you can see in the image below. The long s appears in the middle of words like “blush,” “modesty,” and “pleasing,” and at the beginnings of words like “smile” and “so.” The short s only appears at the end of words like “virtues” and “perhaps.” The word “possessed” has two sets of double long s, but when the double s ends the word, like “confess”, the first s is long and the last s is short.
But that edition of The Polite Lady was behind the times- the long s was already going out of fashion. Some London printers in the 1790s were already using new typefaces that lacked the long s, and by the early years of the 19th century it was disappearing rapidly.
Long S in Handwriting
However, handwriting from the 18th and early 19th century follows a slightly different rule, as do engraved plates that imitate master penman’s writings (like those in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant). In writing, the long s is only used as the first letter of a double s, at any point in the word. The following image is from George Bickham’s Moral Maxims in Roundhand. Wherever there is a double s, it is composed of a long and a short s (happiness, blessing). Every other lower case s, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, is a short s (choicest, modest, is, finds).
To see these rules in real handwriting, I turned to Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts, which are all viewable online in a “digital edition.” Here’s a short passage from Austen’s 1813 “Plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,” now in the Morgan Library.
This snippet reads “The Heroine a faultleſs Character herself —, perfectly good, with much tenderneſs & sentiment, & not the least Wit-” Austen uses the short s at the beginning of “sentiment” and in the middle of “least,” and only uses the long s in the double s of “faultless” and “tenderness.” I find the written long s much less confusing and f-like than the printed version. And when I practice my English Roundhand writing, I relish a double s! It’s very satisfying how the swooping loops of the long s resolve into the compact curl of the little s.
Learning these rules has helped me parse 18th century sources more easily, and I hope they will help you too. However, I still have to concentrate very hard to keep my mental voice from saying “f” when I see “ſ”!
- The Wikipedia entry on Long S discusses briefly the whole history of long s, in both print and handwriting.
- For a much more exhaustive account of the uses of the long s in print, see this post on Babelstone.