In describing the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), on page 13 of The United States of Arugula, I note her recipe for “Beft bacon,” adding in a parenthetical aside that “printers had not yet sorted out their use of f’s and ornamental s’s.”
Marvin Taylor, who is the director of the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, and who was especially helpful to me as I researched the early chapters of the book, writes in to point out that what I describe an an f “isn’t really an f, it is what is known as a ‘long s.’ If you look closely at it, the cross bar doesn’t go all the way across. If it did, it would be an f. It goes only halfway, and is, thus, an s. While it looks odd to us, the long s was a typographical convention in English printing until the mid-19th century. It came over from handwriting into typography. You usually see it in the middle of words where there is an s or whenever there are two s’s together.”
Truth be told, I was aware that these f-lookin’ s’s are indeed s’s, and I was simply trying to convey how they read to the modern eye: “best” reads as “beft.” It’s like that great Ron Carey line in one of the ancient Rome scenes of Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I: “You’re nuts! N-V-T-S nuts!”
But Taylor is right, the way I worded that sentence in the book, it sounds like the printers made a mistake, when, in fact, they knew exactly what they were doing and were correct in their usage.