The long s was derived from
the old Roman cursive medial s. When the distinction between majuscule
(uppercase) and minuscule (lowercase) letter forms became established,
toward the end of the eighth century, it developed a more vertical form.
During this period, it was occasionally used at the end of a word, a
practice that quickly died but that was occasionally revived in Italian
printing between about 1465 and 1480. Thus, the general rule that the long s
"never occurred at the end of a word" is not strictly correct, although the
exceptions are rare and archaic. The double s in the middle of a word was
also written with a long s and a short s, as in Miſsiſsippi. In German
typography, the rules are more complicated: short s also appears at the end
of each component within a compound word, and there are more detailed rules
and practices for special cases.
The long s is often confused with the minuscule f, sometimes even having an
f-like nub at its middle, but on the left side only, in various Roman
typefaces and in blackletter. There was no nub in its italic typeform, which
gave the stroke a descender that curled to the left and which is not
possible without kerning in the other typeforms mentioned. For this reason,
the short s was also normally used in combination with f: for example, in "ſatisfaction".
In general, the long s fell
out of use in Roman and italic typefaces in professional printing well
before the middle of the 19th century. It rarely appears in good quality
London printing after 1800, though it lingers provincially until 1824, and
is found in handwriting into the second half of the nineteenth century"
being sometimes seen later on in archaic or traditionalist printing such as
printed collections of sermons. Woodhouse's The Principles of Analytical
Calculation, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1803, uses the
long s throughout its Roman text.
The long s disappeared from new typefaces rapidly in the mid-1790s, and most
printers who could afford to do so had discarded older typefaces by the
early years of the 19th century. Pioneer of type design John Bell
(1746–1831), who started the British Letter Foundry in 1788, commissioned
the William Caslon Company to produce a new modern typeface for him and is
often "credited with the demise of the long s."
The 1808 Printer’s Grammar describes the transition away from the use of the
long s among typefounders and printers in its list of available sorts:
The introduction of the round s, instead of the long, is an improvement in
the art of printing equal, if not superior, to any which has taken place in
recent years, and for which we are indebted to the ingenious Mr. Bell, who
introduced them in his edition of the British Classics [published in the
1780s and 1790s]. They are now generally adopted, and the type founders
scarcely ever cast a long s to their fonts, unless particularly ordered.
Indeed, they omit it altogether in their specimens. They are placed in our
list of sorts, not to recommend them, but because we may not be subject to
blame from those of the old school, who are tenacious of deviating from
custom, however antiquated, for giving a list which they might term
An individual instance of an important work using s instead of the long s
occurred in 1749, with Joseph Ames’ Typographical Antiquities, about
printing in England 1471–1600, but "the general abolition of long s began
with John Bell's British Theatre (1791)."
In Spain, the change was mainly accomplished between the years 1760 and
1766; for example, the multi-volume Espańa Sagrada made the switch with
volume 16 (1762). In France, the change occurred between 1782 and 1793.
Printers in the United States stopped using the long s between 1795 and
1810: for example, acts of Congress were published with the long s
throughout 1803, switching to the short s in 1804. In the U.S., a late use
of the long s was in Low's Encyclopaedia, which was published between 1805
and 1811. Its reprint in 1816 was one of the last such uses in America. And
the statutes of the United Kingdom's colony Nova Scotia also used the long s
as late as 1816. Some examples of the use of the long and short s among
specific well-known typefaces and publications in the UK include the
The Caslon typeface 1732 has the long s.
The Caslon typeface 1796 has the short s only.
In the UK, The Times of London made the switch from the long to the short s
with its issue of 10 September 1803.
The Catherwood typeface 1810 has the short s only.
Encyclopędia Britannica's 5th edition, completed in 1817, was the last
edition to use the long s. The 1823 6th edition uses the short s.
The Caslon typeface 1841 has the short s only.
Two typefaces from Stephenson Blake, both 1838–1841, have the short s only.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the contrast between the non-use of the long
S by the United States, and its continued use by the United Kingdom, is
illustrated by the Twelfth U.S. Congress' use of the "short-S" of today in
the U.S. declaration of war against the United Kingdom, and in contrast, the
continued use of "long-s" within the text of Isaac Brock's counterpart
document responding to the declaration of war by the United States.
Early editions of Scottish poet Robert Burns that have lost their title page
can be dated by their use of the long s; that is, Dr. James Currie's edition
of the Works of Robert Burns (Liverpool, 1800 and many reprintings) does not
use the long s, while editions from the 1780s and early 1790s do.
In printing, instances of the long s continue in rare and sometimes notable
cases in the U.K. until the end of the 19th century, possibly as part of a
consciously antiquarian revival of old-fashioned type. Collections of
sermons were published using the long s until the end of the 19th century.
After its decline and disappearance in printing in the early years of the
19th century, the long s persisted into the second half of the century in
manuscript. In handwriting used for correspondence and diaries, its use for
a single s seems to have disappeared first: most manuscript examples from
the 19th century use it for the first in a double s. For example,
Charlotte Brontė used the long s, as the first in a double s, in some of her
letters, e.g., Miſs Austen in a letter to G. H. Lewes, 12 January 1848; in
other letters, however, she uses the short s, for example in an 1849 letter
to Patrick Brontė, her father. Her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls used the
long s in writing to Ellen Nussey of Brontė's death.
Edward Lear regularly used the long s in his diaries in the second half of
the 19th century; for example, his 1884 diary has an instance in which the
first s in a double s is long: Addreſsed.
Wilkie Collins routinely used the long s for the first in a double s in his
manuscript correspondence; for example, he used the long s in the words mſs
(for manuscripts) and needleſs in a 1 June 1886 letter to Daniel S. Ford.
For these as well as others, the handwritten long s may have suggested type
and a certain formality as well as the traditional. Margaret Mathewson
"published" her Sketch of 8 Months a Patient in the Royal Infirmary of
Edinburgh, A.D. 1877 of her experiences as a patient of Joseph Lister in the
Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh by writing copies out in manuscript. In place
of the first s in a double s Mathewson recreated the long s in these copies,
a practice widely used for both personal and business correspondence by her
family, who lived on the remote island of Yell, Shetland. The practice of
using the long s in handwriting on Yell, as elsewhere, may have been a
carryover from 18th-century printing conventions, but it was not unfamiliar
as a convention in handwriting.