The Long S

Bill of Rights Day is December 15. Visit the National Archives website for more information. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

One of the most frequent questions visitors to the National Archives Rotunda have about the Bill of Rights is why is the word Congress in the heading has an “f” in it.

The “f” in question is not actually an f but a separate character now called the “long s.” A close comparison of the two letters shows that they differ slightly. In printed type, the cross-bar of the lowercase f goes all the way through, but the cross-bar on the long s is only on the left side of the letter’s “stem” (the vertical line forming the body of the letter).

Excerpt from the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, 1776. (National Archives Identifier 301682)

In cursive handwriting, the bottom curve of the long s goes to the left, while in the f, it goes to the right or doesn’t exist.

Agreement of Secrecy, 1775. (National Archives Identifier 24329848)

While the rules changed over time and from language to language (and weren’t always followed by the writer or printer), the basic guidelines for when the long s was used in 18th- and early 19th-century English-language documents were:

  • It only applied to lowercase s, not uppercase S.
  • If an s was at the beginning or in the middle of a word, the long s was used (ſurpriſe for suprise).
  • If a word included ss, a double long s was used unless the letters were at the end of a word; otherwise it was finished with a regular s, as in poſſeſs (possess), not poſſeſſ (a relative of the German letter ß, or eszett).
  • The long s was not used when s was the last letter of the word. 

There’s no clear answer for why the long s exists as a typographical feature of the Roman alphabet, though the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets also distinguish between different forms of s, such as σ and ς as the two forms of the Greek letter sigma.

The shift away from using the long s in English took almost a century, from the mid-18th century to the early 19th. It began when people began abandoning the long s in “roundhand,” the neat, clear cursive handwriting favored by businesses for keeping accounts and writing official documents—the exception being the double s at the end of a word. This draft of the Constitution shows the process clearly:

Revised draft of the Constitution, 1787. (National Archives Identifier 7347094)

This entirely handwritten act of Congress from 1794 is another good example, with the long s missing unless it’s a part of the double s (ſs) that appears in Congress. 

An Act Making an Alteration in the Flag of the United States, 1/13/1794. (National Archives Identifier 1501721)

Meanwhile, it took several more decades before printers stopped using the long s in type due to the need to cast new type and redesign the cases that held printer’s type. No longer using the long s didn’t mean abandoning just one piece of type since 18th-century typefaces consist of a variety of ligatures, or combinations of letters joined in a single piece of metal type, such as  ſh, ſt, and ſs.

18th century French typecase layout, from Diderot’s Encyclopedia (1765). By the late 19th century, condensed layouts such as California Case had simplified the process of setting type by hand by eliminating the long s and its ligatures.

The long s stopped being used in printed materials in England during the 1810s and 1820s, while it died out a little earlier in the United States. It occasionally persisted in English handwriting (particularly the use of ſs for a final ss) and in the published copy books that taught handwriting through the 1870s, and the sharp-eyed researcher can find examples of ſs in the occasional Civil War–era record.

Want to show off your new knowledge? You can create a long s with the Unicode combination U+017F.

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