Celebrating 17 years

How To Read A 250-Year-Old Document

And Other FAQs

In reading newspapers, books and magazines from the 18th Century you will invarably notice that an "f" is apparently used where there should be an "s."

For instance, the word "vessel" is printed as "veffel," the word "same" appears as "fame" and "castle" becomes "caftle." Because of the confusion encountered by readers new to 18th Century documents, we have asked three individuals knowledgeable in the history of typography to render their views on the subject.

Their explanations follow:

"The Long S is a legitimate form of "S." See the American Heritage Dictionary "S" entries. The Long S is similar to a lowercase f but the horizontal stroke does not go through the top of the letter. The long s still survives in German (or at least it was available when I studied German). German has an uppercase S, a lowercase long f and a lowercase s.

"The Rules Are:

"Regular uppercase S; "Terminal lowercase s and medial s under certain conditions; initial long f and medial long f."


"In the 1791 Bradford edition of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the Introduction reads:

"Perhaps the fentiments contained in the following pages are not yet fufficiently fathionable to procure them general favor...."

"You will note that both fentiments and pages end with a normal lowercase "s" and both fentiments & fufficiently have an initial lowercase long f."

- Richard Irby


The typographic script "s" is an analogue of the handwritten letter, a sort of double loop, and used in the middle of the word. PrintersSsetSthe graphic version of the handwritten letter, which differs from the "f" in having a very minimal cross-stroke. They (the "s" and the "f") are not the same.

To be precise, the script "s" was used in all positions except the last. Thus the word "success" would have begun with a script s, the penultimate letter would have been a script s, but the final letter would have been what we consider a normal "s".

- Philip A. Metzger
Special Collections Librarian


The symbol ("s") was not an "f" although it looked like one. The long s letter can better be described as an "f" without the crossline traveling through the vertical line. The crossline only extends to the right of the vertical line. Also, the long s was never used at the end of a word or to denote the possessive or to pluralize. Since handwriting was considered an art form, the placement of the long s depended on what the "clark" felt would be visually pleasing to his audience. In a hand-written document, the top of the long s looked like the lower case fS."

- Lawrence Davis


How do original documents differ from Early American History 101?

Newspapers from this period (or from any period in history, for that matter) are considered to be primary source material. When an historian decides to write a book, let's say, about the presidency of George Washington, the writer (if he or she sets out to do a creditable job) will go to as much primary source material as possible. That means searching all the historical documents for that period. This includes letters by Washington, official statements issued by the President and members of his administration, and official actions taken by those on center stage.

Original newspapers, maps and books printed at the time represent a major source of all of the above. With few exceptions anything written by a person who witnessed an event or was a participant in it was sure to find its way into the newspapers printed at the time. As a crusty old city editor once opined, "Newspapers are history written in a hurry."

Can history be more fascinating or more exciting than to hold an original map printed over 200 years ago showing The Plan of Action at Bunker Hill ... with the exact positions of the British troops and the American forces? Or to read the account of Washington's death written by his personal secretary? Or to pick up an original edition of Common Sense and read Thomas Paine's forceful arguments for colonial independence.

How can documents printed 250 years ago still be in good condition?

Newspapers, maps and books from early America were printed on paper made from cotton and linen rags ... commonly referred to as "rag paper." They have very little if any acid content and are in better condition today than last week' s New York Times (exposed to the light on your favorite coffee table!).

Somewhere between 1870 and 1880 the newspaper industry converted to what is known as "wood pulp," paper made from trees. "Wood pulp" has a high acid content which causes newspapers to become brittle, turn yellow and, eventually, disintegrate if not cared for meticulously.

The paper used to produce maps continued to be of superior quality up until 1800. From that time on the paper used was of lesser quality. All of the maps at the Archiving Early America site were printed on hand-made paper and are in excellent condition. When held up to the light some of them show a watermark. In all cases chainlines are visible — the impressions left by the grid on which the layer of pulp was left to dry.

When did they discontinue using hand-made paper?

As we said, for newspapers — between 1870 and 1880.

Maps, however, began to be printed on machine-made paper sometime after 1801. You can tell the difference by closely examing the texture of the paper. Hand-made papers tend to be course and are often of uneven thickness, while machine-made paper is much smoother, and has a more uniform thickness.

Despite this apparent improvement, printers made sure their customers could still see the lines created (supposedly) by the wires of the mould...and continued to imitate the earlier hand-made paper for another couple of decades. Of course, the physical content of the old-style hand-made paper itself was superior to the newer product, certtainly in terms of its longevity and durability.

From 1815 on — coincident with the Industrial Revolution — bleached papers had arrived, then and forever changing the look and feel of printed materials.

What is the historical relevance of maps from the Revolutionary War?

In many ways they are unique....in that they were based on the observations of eyewitnesses, and published close to the time of the events they describe. In effect, they were "reports from the front lines" and were much in demand by those who were outside the sphere of action. They influenced large numbers of interested persons and helped to interpret what transpired. They were the earliest and, sometimes the only, pictorial portrayals of the engagements of battle. In another context they might be likened to CNN's on-the-spot coverage of the military action during the Gulf War, the fighting in Bosnia and Somalia.

How many copies of these 18th Century early American maps were printed?

An exact answer is impossible to come by. Publishing houses in those days did not keep precise records. Whatever records existed never survived beyond that time. However, we know that a copperplate (from which these maps were printed) would last for appoximately 1000 impressions. It is generally estimated that the survival rate ranged anywhere from 8 percent to 20 percent. The actual number of any one particular map surviving today represents a tiny proportion of the original printing. Furthermore, of those originals that may still be extant, most are m libraries, or in private or public collections, and do not often appear on the open market.

How many copies of each newspaper were printed 200 years ago?

A daily press run of about 500 copies was a full day's work. Often no more than 200 -issues were printed. Unlike today's 4-color newspapers printed on high-speed automated presses, the newspapers from George Washington's time were literally hand-crafted. Each page was printed on one side, the paper had to dry, then printed on the other side.

They were published by printers whose other work included stationery, legal and government documents, and other announcements. So it's only natural that the final product was more like a document than a newspaper.

How did printers set the type in those days?

All of the type was set by hand — letter by letter. A page full of type might weigh over 50 pounds. It was locked into forms, printed on a damp piece of paper and hand-cranked up so that, inevitably, the ink on each copy would be of a different thickness or density. If the type dented the paper evenly, the printer had a good copy. That's how the phrase "making a good impression" came into our language!

What do you mean by "browning" or "toning" in a document?

As the organic material in paper begins to age, it produces a slight brownish cast to the paper, otherwise known as browning or toning. Many older documents have a natural toning, a patina that appears when an object of value has survived the passage of time and has been well cared for.

What is meant by "foxing" in describing a document?

Foxing refers to brown stains or spots found on paper (newspapers, maps & pages in a book), mainly caused by age, storage in damp conditions or chemical content of the paper. Unless it is excessive, foxing does not detract from the value of a document.

What is an "octavo" size book, magazine or pamphlet?

Octavo size runs about 8 1/2 inches by 5 inches. An octavo book is bound from sheets of paper folded in half three times. This is a popular size for 18th century magazines.

I keep hearing about "folio" and "quarto" sizes? Please explain.

Popular for newspapers from early America, folio size measures approximately I I by 18 inches. A folio book is bound from sheets of paper folded one time. A folio map typically has a vertical dimension greater than about I I inches. The quarto size in newspapers runs about 12 by 9 inches. A quarto book is bound from sheets of paper folded in half twice. Quarto-sized maps typically measure about 9 to 11 inches vertically.