In most works printed before about 1800 two forms of the lower-case s were used. One was the s that is still in use today; the other was the long s, a character which looks like f without the right-hand part of its crossbar. The italic form of long s usually lacks the ‘crossbar’ altogether. (The image above is a detail of the showing of Pica No. 2 in William Caslon, Specimen of Printing Types, London, 1766.)
The present form of the minuscule s (called ‘short s’ here for convenience) resembles the capital letter S in Roman inscriptions. The long s originates in the straggling form given to this letter in Roman cursive script.
In the late Roman cursive of the fourth century the letter had already acquired the shape that it kept when it was was adopted in more formal hands, such as the ‘half uncial’ of the sixth century and other minuscule hands of the middle ages, including the Carolingian script. (The example above, a letter written on papyrus in about 400, reads ...sam uilissima...) The inscriptional S was used in uncial scripts, and in capital letters for headings and initials. Some minuscule scripts used both the long and the short s: the script of the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in Northumbria in the ‘insular’ form of half uncial in about 698, is an example. (Is there any rule that governs this early use of two forms of s?) The Carolingian script of the ninth century used only long s, but in late Carolingian or early gothic scripts from the twelfth century onwards, the convention was adopted of using long s at the beginning and in the middle of words, and short s at the end.
The first types were based on gothic hands, and the early printers followed the established use of initial and medial long s and final short s. However the first writers of the humanistic script, which was based on the Carolingian hand, had followed its convention of using only long s thoughout. Some printers who began to use types influenced by the humanistic script (Sweynheym and Pannartz, Subiaco, 1465, for example, and Ulric Gering, Paris, 1470) did the same, but they soon reverted to the ‘gothic’ use of initial and medial long and final short s, and this became the almost universal rule in printing until the end of the eighteenth century. Because long s was kerned and overlapped adjacent characters, the short s was sometimes used as an expedient in front of the tall letters with which the long s would have collided. Special ligatured types were eventually made for many of the combinations, such as (for printing English) sb, sh, si, sk, sl, ss, st, ssi, ssl.
Like the printers, writers of the formal humanistic script in the later fifteenth century generally reverted to initial and medial long s and final short s. But writers of the cursive form of the script and the hands that developed from it (chancery cursive and the later ‘Italian’ hands) often made no use at all of long s, and the relaxed and inconsistent usage of calligraphers is strikingly different from the rigid practice observed by printers. Examples of initial and medial short s can be found towards the end of the fifteenth century in the work of Bartolomeo Sanvito, and perhaps a significant figure in this context (as in many others) is the reforming sixteenth-century calligrapher and teacher Giovan Francesco Cresci in Rome who, unlike earlier writers of the cancellaresca corsiva, including his arch-rival Giovanni Battista Palatino, made little use of long s in his own manuscripts and writing books. His new style, adopted by his pupils and followers, changed the look of Western handwriting, and the use of long s became less common. Lodovico Curione was one of the pupils listed by Cresci. His Lanotomia, shown here, was engraved on copper and published in Rome in 1588.
However, from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries there are very few exceptions in texts printed from type to the rule that the initial and medial s was long and the final s was short. One of the exceptions is seen in the series of works printed at Vicenza in the 1520s for the Italian linguistic reformer Gian Giorgio Trissino, in which short and long s are used to distinguish the voiced and unvoiced consonant. The same distinction between short and long s, an idea perhaps derived from Trissino, was made by Edward Capell in his Prolusions, or select pieces of antient poetry, printed in London by Dryden Leach and published in 1760, and in his edition of Shakespeare (1768, etc.).
Pierre Moreau, Paris, who printed in the 1640s with types based on a current version of the Italian cursive hand, followed the practice of contemporary calligraphers and used only short s. The long s was not used in Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities (London, 1749), nor in the Virgil of 1758 printed by Robert and Andrew Foulis of Glasgow and a few of their other titles.
The first consistent move away from long s among printers from type appears to take place in Spain. An example identified by Paul Nash, and still the earliest example recorded in Spain, is in Compendio de los diez libros de arquitectura de Vitruvio (Madrid: Gabriel Ramirez, 1761). Not long after there is one printed by Joaquín Ibarra: Tomás Lopez, Descripción de la Provincia de Madrid (Madrid, 1763). The first known type specimen of Antonio Espinosa, Madrid, Muestras de la letra nueva de los grados de Atanasia y Lectura, dated 13 August 1764, shows texts and alphabets of roman and italic that wholly omit the long s, and it appears only intermittently in his later specimens. Other early examples include Andres Xímenez, Descripción del ... Escorial (Madrid: Antonio Marín, 1764), and some other works printed by Ibarra, including his Sallust (Madrid, 1772), using types by Espinosa (and also a Small Pica by Caslon). D. B. Updike, Printing types, 2nd ed. (1937), figs. 233–44, shows examples of the omission of long s in the setting of some books of the 1770s. For the specimen of Espinosa, 1764, see Albert Corbeto, Especímenes tipográficas españoles (Madrid, 2010), p. 78, plate 16. Settings with the use of just one or two lines with long s appear in Espinosa’s specimen book of 1780. Clearly its use and disuse in setting books in Spain, together with the roles of Ibarra and Espinosa and the links between them, are matters that are still in need of attention.
Giambattista Bodoni followed the current convention and used long s in his first books printed at Parma and in his early undated single-leaf type specimens. However there are intermittent instances of the omission of long s in some works that he printed during the 1770s. In one, to which my attention has been drawn by James Clough, long s is used in the early sheets but not in the later ones: Atti della solenne coronazione fatta in Campidoglio della insigne poetessa Maria Maddalena Morelli Fernandez... (Parma: Stamperia Reale, 1779), Brooks 135. Is this perhaps the piece of printing in which Bodoni began to abandon long s? Another work printed in the same year omits long s altogether, Panegirico in lode di San Vincenzio Ferreri, Brooks 146, and thereafter this appears to have been Bodoni’s established practice. Perhaps the spectacular example of the usage in Spain by Ibarra in his Sallust had provided the model. The long s is omitted throughout the first Manuale tipografico of 1788, with just two exceptions: it appears, as Paul Nash has pointed out, on leaves 68 and 78, once in an st ligature and once within a word, in types for the body of Canoncino. Since these are both examples of the reuse of settings of types that had first appeared as earlier single-leaf specimens using long s, it is likely that they are cases of its accidental survival.
The general discarding of the long s by printers was given what may have been its decisive encouragement by François-Ambroise Didot, Paris, who in about 1781 initiated the cutting of the style of type that later became known in English as ‘modern face’. Long s was not included in his new types, and the example was quickly followed by printers under his influence. One of these was John Bell, printer and typefounder in London, to whom the movement for its disuse used to be attributed, mistakenly. Bell did not use long s in his newspaper The World, first published on 1 January 1787, nor in the text of the specimen of the new types cut for his British Letter-Foundry by Richard Austin (1788), although the synopsis of the fount shows that long s and its combinations were made for it. Bell was familiar with contemporary French books, which he imported into England, and he had made use of a small size of one of the types cut by Firmin, son of François-Ambroise Didot.
In the ‘Prolegomena’ to his Shakspeare (1788) Bell explained that his objects in omitting long s were to give the lines ‘the effect of being more open’ (an aim of many printers of the late 18th century, when texts were commonly leaded) and to avoid the confusion of long s with f.
When typefounders in Britain introduced ‘modern-cut’ types during the decade from 1795 to 1805, long s was often not supplied in the fount, and as these new types were bought by printers its general use quickly declined. It was revived for a time for the sake of its antiquarian flavour by printers like Charles Whittingham and Louis Perrin when old face types were again used for printing towards the middle of the nineteenth century, but the long s never returned in everyday printing with roman types.
Long s and its combinations are still used when German is set correctly in gothic types like Schwabacher and Fraktur. The character ß, a ligature which is known as Eszett (or some such spelling) since it is essentially based on sz, is still used when the German language is set in roman type, except in Switzerland, where it has disappeared. Some attempt is made to give its history, some models for its design and the rules for its use in the post that follows. Recent changes to German orthography have modified the rules and reduced the occasions for its use.
Several other scripts, notably Arabic and Hebrew, have differing initial, medial and final forms for many letters. Greek retains two forms of sigma, one for initial and medial and one for final use, but the existence of the two forms seems completely unconnected with the duplication of s in the Latin script.
This text was written years ago for giving out in classes and it was printed in 1995. I am adding a revised version of it to this blog because it still seems to give rather more historical information about the use of long s by printers and professional calligraphers than can easily be found. One or two of the references that are added above relating to the discarding of the long s are from a study by Paul Nash, ‘The abandoning of the long s in Britain in 1800’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, new series 3 (2001), pp. 3–19. Two online references are The Long and the Short of the Letter S, and The Rules for Long s. These ‘rules’ are given in a series of detailed tables. Their compiler might have learned something from the brief notes above on the printer’s need to use the short s, regardless of its position in a word, in order to avoid the collision of the overhanging kerned part of long s with ascending types that followed
Long into the 19th century it was still common practice in English handwriting to use long and short s for double s, notably in ‘Miss’ in the address on letters. William Bulmer’s grand folio Shakspeare [sic], 1792, and Milton, 1794, were a British rejoinder to the austere magnificence of the books printed by Pierre Didot with the types of Firmin. They display a certain conservatism. The forms of the types are almost closer to those of Baskerville, cut forty years earlier, than to those of the Didots. The warmly-tinted Whatman wove paper avoids the icy whiteness of the French papers. And although the long s was generally omitted in the text, it was retained – as in handwriting – for the combination ss. Note ‘glassy’ in this detail from the Milton:
My thanks for help to Albert Corbeto for references to Espinosa, and to James Clough for titles by Bodoni. Last edited 15 February 2011