Thanks to Sarcasmo, I learned about a really neat feature on the website of the British Library. It’s called Turning the Pages and contains scans of old manuscripts and printed books. It’s really remarkable to see how much writing and typesetting conventions have changed. The example I was looking at Vesalius’s Anatomy. The text is written in Latin. One interesting thing about the typesetting is that in some instances, the letter s looks as we typically set it now, while in many others, the symbol looks like a curvey letter f. You can see something similar on the title page to Elizabeth Blackwell’s book of botanical illustratons, although you can see the difference between the f and the s. The anatomy text also shows the use of V for U.
One thing I haven’t seen in any of these texts, but have seen elsewhere is the use of a symbol that looks like Y for Th. I saw that a lot when I was taking a class on the sonnet at MIT. I’ve also heard that in very early texts, there was much less use of punctuation, making it harder to tell when sentences start and stop. I’d love to find a book about the history of how writing and printing of modern English has evolved over the last few hundred years (although half of this post has really had to do with Latin).