Sometimes an “S” is just an “S”

Today’s blog post was written by Tammy Kelly, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library.

When future President Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, his parents decided to name him Harry, after his mother’s brother Harrison Young. But what about a middle name? Harry’s parents could not come to a decision—should Harry’s middle name be Shipp, in honor of his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shipp Truman? Or should it be Solomon, in honor of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young?

In the end, they entered his middle name as simply S, which led to a never-ending controversy and questions about Harry S. Truman’s middle name.

When Harry S. Truman wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1945, Truman's signature includes the period (ARC 4708753).

Many people tried to give Truman a middle name. When Truman took the oath of office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone delivered the oath as “I, Harry Shipp Truman.” When Truman repeated it back, he made the subtle correction, “I, Harry S. Truman.”

In this press release, Truman runs his signature together and the "S" can barely be seen (ARC 200612).

Truman often received mail addressed to “Harry Solomon Truman,” “Harry Simpson Truman” and “Harry Shippe Truman.” In 1955, on a visit to Eugene, Oregon, to raise money for the construction of the Truman Library, the Swinomish Indian tribe gave Truman the ceremonial middle name of Swinomish.

In this letter from Harry S. Truman to James F. Byrnes in 1946, Truman did not use the period in his signature (ARC 201509)

But if Truman’s middle name is just S, and does not stand for anything else, why does the Truman Library use a period after the S? The reason is simple: Harry Truman did.

The Truman Library is filled with numerous examples, from Truman’s boyhood through his old age, where the period after the S is very clear. Other times, especially while he served as President, Truman ran his signature into a single stroke of the pen and the period can be difficult to decipher. Other times it is quite emphatic.

Another  reason the Truman Library also uses “S.” is that the library follows the guidance of the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, which states that the period should be used as part of Truman’s middle name, partly for the sake of consistency.

This leads to another question that Truman asked his friend and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson: what does one call Truman’s middle name? In a letter to  Acheson in 1957, Truman writes “…do you know the word meaning an initial standing in a name but signifying no name itself, as the ‘S’ in Harry S. Truman?”

This leads to an entertaining response from Acheson, who contacts several librarians and reports back on his search:

The essence of the matter is that we are blind men, searching in a dark room for a black hat which isn’t there. The “S” in Harry S Truman (no period after the “S”) does not “stand for anything.” Therefore, it cannot have a descriptive noun—“vacuum,” “nothing,” etc., are already pre-empted. But, more positively, it is something—not representatively, but absolutely. You are “S” (without a period) because it is your name.

 One of the librarians stated in her report that she understood Truman’s parents gave him S as a middle name. “Parents can name their child anything they please, and if they choose to name him X, then X is his name,” she wrote. “On the other hand it seems a pity to offer nothing to an ex-President. Why not make up a word? I suggest sic, meaning ‘so in christening.’”

President Harry S. Truman receives a birthday cake at his desk in the Oval Office from White House receptionist William Simmons, in honor of his sixty-seventh birthday. 05/08/1951 (ARC 200315)

6 thoughts on “Sometimes an “S” is just an “S”

    1. I am not a history buff, but I found this subject very interesting. But I have to agree with Those who believe that an “S” is just that an “S”. If his parents gave him that for his middle name, who are we to question it.

  1. Martin J. Sampson of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community bestowed “Swinomish” on President Truman as his middle name on November 26, 1955. We have a copies of media articles reporting the “naming” as well as the letter that Truman wrote Sampson on 12-6-1955 thanking him for , “… at long last a middle name of my own. I’ll wear it proudly, I assure you.”

    Theresa L. Trebon
    Swinomish Tribal Archivist

    1. This is a fantastic story. Thank you for sharing it! Does the Truman Library have Sampson’s letter to Truman?

    2. Theresa,

      This is fascinating–I’m checking to see if the Truman Library has copies. Otherwise, perhaps you might be interested in a sharing a scan with us?


  2. My grandfather was named RT. Didn’t stand for anything but him. When he enlisted in the Army in 1942, he was told he couldn’t use only initials on his application. So he wrote “R (only) T (only) F____”, and served proudly as Ronly Tonly F_____.

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