We’re so pleased you have asked this question! Early printing (prior to 1850) used several forms and styles of letters based in Roman Type which have been discarded by modern print.
Roman letters had no separate letters for V and U or for I and J and this can take us by surprise and cause confusion – we are used to seeing the full 26 letters of the English language alphabet in print. For example, look at the title page of this book printed in London in 1611, ‘FOVRE GODLIE AND FRVITVL SERMONS’. The author, ‘I. Dodd’ is actually John Dodd – an ‘I’ is used for the ‘J’.
Dodd’s FRVITFVL sermon was delivered, ‘At a Faft’ – the ‘s’ of the word ‘Fast’ is represented by a letter-form which appears all over early printed texts’ it is called the ‘long s’ (in fact, when looking closely, it should be noted that the long s differs from an ‘f’ in that the horizontal cross stroke projects only to the left).
The long s has its roots in Roman (Latin) handwriting and was a style that crossed over from scribal production to printing. It can be found when a single ‘s’ is used in a word, or as the first ‘s’ in a double ‘ss’, like “sucefs”.
The long s was commonly used by all English printers up until the middle of the 18th century. After this it began a long period of being slowly discarded. John Bell’s edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1775 did not contain a single long s and that is quite indicative of a trend that the more professional printers and fine printed editions were doing away with the long s. It had pretty much entirely vanished by the middle of the 19th century.
Most of the playbills you see on ‘In the Spotlight’ date from the 1780s to the 1860s but there are plenty of examples of printing styles using the long s. Here’s a nice one used in the word ‘madness’
There are a couple considerations for the persistence in their use, such as the economical use of the metal print type owned by printers - they wouldn’t be keen to jettison tools of the trade whilst they could still be made use of. Printers would not be averse to using type cleverly and economically (many examples can be found of the ‘double v’ for ‘w’) and it can be a joy to see them being used in innovative ways.
One of the major features of a printed playbill is its striking composition, its use of different type faces and letter forms. The printer’s skill can clearly be seen to develop rapidly from the late 18th century through the early 19th century as playbills become more and more eye-catching, after all that was their primary purpose. Aesthetically, a printer might still be inclined to make use of a good looking long s on his playbills.
We’re pleased you’ve asked this question because it has fundamental importance for the transcription tasks volunteers are undertaking on this project. We’ve included guidance in the ‘Help’ notes for the title transcription tasks asking that people ‘type what you see’ - however, we add:
“There is an exception to 'type what you see': if you come across a 'long f' - for example, the 'Sufpicious Hufband', please use 's' instead of 'f' in your transcription.”
“Type in the title exactly as displayed in the highlighted box on the page.”
Of course, it’s always possible that there are typos https://community.libcrowds.com/d/8-typos If you think there’s a typo – please transcribe it with the typo intact – “type what you see”. But if it’s a long s you see, please do just type it as a straightforward modern s.
Thanks so much for participating – and especially for raising this question.