Monday, July 18, 2011

Long s - a victim of efficiency

kw: typography, history

During genealogical researches, I've been reading a lot of old books and letters. I got more interested in the way the long s (often shown as ⌠) was eliminated in printed versus handwritten documents. Even quite late in the 19th Century, you can see letters and manuscripts with words that look like wi⌠h (wish). Also, wi⌠e and wife used in the same document can cause a bit of cognitive dissonance, particularly when trying to read quickly!

I just had to dig into things a bit. At first, I thought it might be a linguistic trend, in other words, primarily a matter of fashion. While there were linguistic fashions involved, I realized there was a societal evolutionary trend also at work. For a great summary of the linguistic trends, see The Regency: So Long, Long S: It outlines the dropping of typographic ligatures and the long s during the Regency period. But there was a reason for this.

In printed books, the crossover occurred early, beginning in 1780 and being essentially complete by 1820. This period reflects the time it takes to wear out a set of metal type. The most popular typefaces of the very late 18th Century tended not to include the long s or any of its ligature forms, and the reasons were primarily economic. Lord Scott has written, "The Regency era bridged the gap between the old slow-paced order of the 'Georgian' 18th century and the new, faster, industrialized world of the 'Victorian' 19th" (We Make History: Regency Primer).

The watchword of the Georgian era was Manners; that of the Victorian era was Efficiency. Faster steam trains and steamboats, the growth of standardized manufacture, and particularly, continued innovations in printing technology all contributed to the "get more done more quickly" social trend.

English typography can get along quite well with 26 minuscule and 26 majuscule letters, 10 digits and about 10 punctuation marks. The long s required two more letters, and the ligatures in which it participated required at least four more minuscule letter forms. This sample of Caslon ligatures is from a modern font file. Computer font files are cheap to produce, compared to metal type, so there is growing interest in the elegance of older-looking documents using traditionalist type faces. There are seven "f" ligatures, and five with the long "s". The short s does not participate in ligatures, so dropping the long s and its ligatures sped up the process of setting type by hand. Almost simultaneously, the f ligatures were also mostly dropped.

I remember once asking why cartoon characters only have three fingers. My father, who had aspired to be a cartoonist when he was a teen, said, "If you have to draw the character a thousand times for one minute of action, skipping one finger can save you a lot of time." In the same way, dropping all those ligatures reduced the number of type pieces in a font by 15%, and if you can save 10-15% of a compositor's time, you can set the type for a novel several days sooner.

By the 1880s when practical typewriters were developed, quickly followed by the Linotype®, there was no question of having more than 26 keys for letters, though punctuation marks had grown in number to about twenty (the original Linotype® keyboard had separate keys for minuscule and majuscule letters, but no 1 or 0, using small L and large O for them). This was the death knell for retaining long s in handwritten manuscripts. You can hardly find a document written after 1880 that uses it.

Will it ever make a comeback? It could. Modern technology makes leisure pursuits more economical. The inclusion of ⌠ and its ligatures, along with the f ligatures in modern typefaces, and the inclusion of codes for them in Unicode, certainly makes it technically feasible. Perhaps one day a version of Word or another writing tool will include an option for converting s to ⌠ according to the original rules, adopted from Greek, which still uses two forms of small sigma. The nostalgia crazes among those who are now middle aged—younger baby boomers and older GenXers—could lead to whole books being published that bear a Georgian or older aspect. If it is "cool", people will do it.

No comments: