If you’re wondering what the s we know and use today was doing during that time, don’t worry, it was there. It’s just that it was used as the uppercase S, mostly, up until the eleventh or twelfth century. Around that time, the long s started to be used when the letter appeared at the beginning or in the middle of a word, and by the fifteenth century, this practice seemed to become established. So, the word “sound” would have been written as “ſound,” and the word “rest” would have been written as “reſt.” The short s (also known as the round s) was used at the end of a word, or after a long s which appeared in the middle of a word. That’s why the word “processes” would have been written like this: “proceſses.”
So what is the appropriate usage of the Long S and the Short S?
- 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)
- 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)
- 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).
The Demise of the Long S
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.
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.
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.
Source: Research & Text by Bryan Wright