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In our time it is almost impossible to find a person that is unable to read or write at least at a basic level. Writing is the part of our everyday life, even a source of living for the growing number of journalists, novelists, and professional writers that write academic essays or any other type of written content. However, there was a time not so long ago, when reading and writing were skills that people had to struggle in order to obtain.

Only those on the top of the social latter were able to learn proper reading and writing while the lower class population had a limited access to literacy which allowed them to read Biblical texts and public notices that were on public display. The language was not standardized so there were variances in style, spelling, choice of words, and “hand” (what we know as font now). This is why today’s audience often finds it difficult to read original 18th-century texts, which brings us to our current topic. Let’s go through some of the main characteristics of British-American literacy that should help everyone to read content from the time when America was younger.

How was writing thought?

In the old days, the craft of reading and writing was mainly reserved for the richest male, while women, children, lower class males, and poor women could not receive a formal education so they developed their individual methods of writing and reading. Those that could get formal education used to copy existing texts in order to learn. For example, young George Washington copied “The rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” and thus practiced the “hand” in which the document was originally written. As a result, we could now easily recognize the era in which a text was written just by noticing the style of the handwriting. Of course, the name of the author can also provide valuable information, as well as the type of paper and ink that were used.

Spelling was a large issue at that time as there were several dictionaries that Colonial-era writers used at the time. Those dictionaries manly focused on difficult or archaic words, however, when Samuel Johnson issued “A Dictionary of the English language” things were starting to move forward. Johnson’s dictionary helped the creation of a more standardized writing style, spelling, and choice of words. Truth be told, books were pretty expensive at that time so those that were not capable to afford a dictionary still had to figure out their own way of writing. Many lower class writers, as well as others who were unable to receive formal education, wrote the words by their sound, which makes it difficult to understand certain parts of the old texts nowadays. This type of practice forces historians and researchers to often read the words aloud in order to understand it.

Distinctive characteristics of the British-American writing

There are certain aspects of early-American writing that differ from today’s way of forming written words. One of the trademarks of 18th century written content is the long “s”, which was in use up to the mid-19th  century. Although the long “s” was out of the use in printed work, the handwritten content of the British-America is all but full of examples. The most notable example of long “s” being used is in the word “Congress” in the “Bill of rights” The long “s” is a form of elongated lowercase “s” and it can be found at the beginning of the word, its middle, and the end of a word. It is found in words that contain double “s”, as well. This letter is often misread as “f” or “p” when reading 18th-century texts, but with a little practice, it is easy to recognize it at the first glance.

Colonial-era texts are rich in abbreviations and superscripts. It was at this time when people started to write “can’t” for “cannot” or “asap” for “as soon as possible”. It could be that this practice started in order to save ink and paper, as they were not cheap or easy to obtain. Most abbreviated words were pointed out in the 18th century by starting a word in a regular-sized letter and ending the phrase with superscript. For example, the word “received” could be written as “recd” in a British-American writing style of that time. The use of superscript and subscript is active even today in chemistry and mathematics thanks to the influence of 18th-century writing.


As a society moves forward it changes along with the population. However, the only way for society to move forward is for its people to advance in all social aspects, most importantly education. In this text, we saw how a collective struggle to read and write gave birth to uniform language and enabled easier access to knowledge for everyone. These old text share more than just factual information, they reveal the way people formed thoughts, their ethics, and dreams. Although reading those texts might seem difficult, knowing who wrote the text, when, and why can set us on a straight path.