Sam’s Signature

Thousands of letters that Sam sent during his lifetime, from his early 20s to his mid-70s, have survived to this day (and mostly, fortunately, are in the care of large academic libraries), and so his signature is a pretty familiar sight to anyone who studies, reads about, or just keeps up with all-things-Sam. Here it is:

It’s pretty legible as both modern and 18th-century signatures go, but note two things:

  • I have been calling him Sam all throughout this blog and in my podcast, and intend to call him that in the title of the book when it’s published, but scholars of course refer to him as Johnson, or, as necessary, Samuel Johnson. I use Sam because it fits with the tone and style I intend for the writing, and for the eventual general readership, and so it’s interesting that in virtually all the signatures on his letters he refers to himself as Sam, too. Note though: not only Sam, but Sam followed by a colon or at least two dots, to indicate the abbreviation. I did some research at one point in writing the book to see if this colon was a common way to abbreviate and I never really came up with anything definitive. I may still do a little poking around, but I’ve heard from at least one scholar/editor that using a colon was a fairly common way to abbreviate. (But why? And how did it come about?)

    At one point in my research on the book I was curious enough about Sam’s signatures in his letters, that I went through the entire authoritative edition of those letters, and determined how he signed each of them. Of all the letters in the nearly-2,000-page, 5-volume edition of Sam’s letters, there are only six letters which are not signed as above. The variations are:

Saml: Johnson: two letters

S.J.: one letter

Samuel Johnson: three letters

  • Note that the signature has what looks more like an “f” than an “s” in Johnson. You may or may not know that this is not just a quirk of Sam’s style. It is what is referred to as “the long s.” It was used routinely throughout the 18th century and eventually died out in the 19th century. In print, it basically looks like an “f” with the righthand side of the crossbar missing—and in some printed books from the 18th century, even the lefthand side is barely visible, perhaps from the printing press just not picking up enough ink for such a small bit of a letter.

One interesting aspect of it is that it was used only within or at the beginning of a word, never at the end (there were a few other rules for its use as well). You can see it in Sam’s Rasselas (published 1759) on the right. Note that the capital (uppercase) S’s are all modern S’s as we see today. Below in the text, though, you can see several examples of the (lowercase) long s.

In my podcast for this week, I’ll talk a little more about the long s (internet, be prepared to be broken!), as well as Sam’s letters generally, and some specific examples. Hey, have a listen …

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