Friday, July 24, 2009

The quiet demiſe of the Long S

Because of the nature of my posts, the question of the Long S occasionally arises. You can of course click the Wikipedia link, and see especially the links at the end of the Wikipedia article, but I discovered something worth seeing. Now, I didn't actually discover this, as this post at the Typefoundry blog obviously beat me to it by well over a year, but I did come across it myself before seeing his post.

I had long observed that the long s disappeared over the course of the 18th century, and was essentially gone early in the 19th, but hadn't really seen anything documenting it. It seemed apparent that the long s/ ſ suffered from a major defect: it looked an awful lot like a lower case f. At the end of the 18th century new types were designed which simply omitted the ſ without fanfare. Still, a major literary work appeared beginning in 1791, and using the new types, felt compelled to point out that they didn't use the long ſ. This was a multi-volume collection of "The dramatick works of 'Shakspere'". The edition contained two prologomena volumes, and the following notice appears in its introduction:

In a comprehensive discussion of the rules for usage of the long s, the BabelStone blog isolated the exact transition in the Times. The September 9, 1803 edition still used the long s, the September 10, 1803 didn't, without any fanfare.

This is especially interesting because it shows the conservative nature of the Times. Not only did it take over ten years to catch up with published literature, but as you can see the Times was even typesetting with the long ſ at the beginning of words, which was already archaic for decades by 1803, having long since been reſerved uſually for only the medial poſition in words.

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