Ever seen an old printed book with the letter S that looks like an F? This ligature, to the uninitiated, looks like ſ; it’s called the ‘long s’, and it has very much fallen out of use in modern typography. John Bell is widely credited for the demise of the long S, which is why we don’t see it very much any more, but it is often seen in European books printed between the 1400s and 1790s.
The google ngram reader relies heavily on optical character recognition (OCR) software to make their books searchable; OCR software strives to match each printed character in a text to a recognized typographic character. Even human readers can have difficulty with reading text which heavily use the ſ, as seen from this 1739 printed example of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:
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