I’ve long been aware of the “long s” — which is an alternative, archaic variation on a lowercase letter s and looks similar to the letter f — but never really paid it much mind. You can see it in this close-up from the U.S. Bill of Rights, above. It’s also in the Jagermeiſter logo
But although I knew about it, it was always just an obsolete holdover — quaint, but unremarkable.
That was until I finished reading two fantastic posts by one Andrew West about the ſ.
In “The Long and Short of the Letter S,” he writes about the history of the ſ, its origins in Old Roman Cursive from the first century and its relationship with the German eszett ß.
And, in “The Rules for Long S,” he attempts to divine rules for using the ſ. In this post, he also traces the typographic ups and downs of the character, using Google Books Ngram Viewer to trace when it fell out of favour. Interestingly, this is kind of a “hack” of Google Books. Since the computer scanners can’t tell the difference between an f and an ſ, what West does is search for words like “afk” and “hufband.”
“The death knell,” he writes, “was finally sounded on September 10th 1803 when … The Times newspaper quietly switched to a modern typeface with no long s or old-fashioned ligatures (this was one of several reforms instituted by John Walter the Second, who became joint proprietor and exclusive manager of The Times at the beginning of 1803).”
Interestingly, the Ngram graphs he provides show that the ſ stuck around in English for longer than it did in other languages, having been mainly dropped in French by 1780 and even earlier in Spanish.
West writes the truly remarkable BabelStone blog, where he is currently mid-way through a six-part series (plus appendix) on the lost Chinese game of Liubo. Part One, on the funerary statuettes, is here. Warning: It is extensive. Weekend-wrecker material.