The Straight Dope | Straight Dope | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Straight Dope

The Straight Dope



How did we arrive at our standardized sizes of 8 1/2 by 11 inches for letter paper and 8 1/2 by 14 for "legal paper"? Was it totally random or was there some practical reason? --Phillip Raskin, Plantation, Florida

Random, mostly, although you'll hear lots of crackpot theories and lame jokes. Sample: lawyers use legal size because they need 14 inches to say what honest folks can fit in 11 (snort). Some say legal paper is used because when you're taking notes in a courtroom you don't have to make a lot of racket changing sheets as often. Sure.

As for letter paper, it's cut from a 17-by-22-inch sheet, the mold for which supposedly was the largest a papermaker could conveniently carry in days of yore. It's claimed Henry VIII standardized this size, known as foolscap, to prevent chiseling by the trade. Nice try, but the truth is that: (1) much larger molds were routinely used; (2) foolscap was anywhere from 12 by 15 to 14 by 18, depending on the grade, not 17 by 22; and (3) there is no evidence English paper sizes were standardized until long after Henry VIII. Other than that, this theory is airtight.

For the facts, such as they are, we turn to paper historian John Bidwell, who writes, "I believe our standard 8 1/2-by-11 typing paper is a quarter sheet of what eighteenth and nineteenth-century papermakers would call 'writing medium.' Printers used a medium sheet of 18 by 23 inches but stationers preferred a smaller version of medium measuring 17 by 22 inches. . . . In 1923 a joint panel of manufacturers, distributors, and consumers drafted guidelines for standard paper sizes, which were revised in 1932 and eventually adopted, in a simplified form, by the Bureau of Standards, which is or was part of the Department of Commerce. These standards define writing medium as 17 by 22 inches."

OK, but why 17 by 22? I say it was a random shot--you know how we Heisenbergians loathe causation--abetted somewhat by the fact that 8 1/2 by 11 makes a nice size sheet.

The situation with legal size (8 1/2 by 14) is equally murky. It arguably does derive from foolscap, a traditional paper size. The type of foolscap used for writing was typically 16 3/4 by 13 1/2 inches and was often folded to make a page 8 3/8 by 13 1/2 that among other things was used for writing official documents. At this point we are required to make something of a stab, but we note that by the 1870s a paper size called legal cap or legal blank had emerged that was 8 1/2 inches wide and anywhere from 13 to 16 inches long. It seems reasonable to suppose that somebody just started cutting foolscap pages in half and selling them to lawyers, who'd buy anything.

Eight-and-a-half-by-whatever is not a world standard. Letter paper in Europe is a size called A4, which is 210 by 297 millimeters--about 8 1/4 by 11 1/2 inches. The basic A-series sheet, A0, is one square meter in area, 841 by 1189 millimeters. You fold that in half to get A1, you fold that in half to get A2, till eventually you get down to A4, A5, A6, etc. All A sizes are in the proportion one wide by the square root of two deep (1 to 1.414 . . .). It's a bit compulsive and you will not be surprised to learn it was thought up by the Germans. A-series paper became an international standard in 1930.

What was the Spanish Main? Was there a Spanish Backup? --Aleck Smart, Chicago

Quiet, rodent. Apparently the Spanish Main originally meant the Spanish-controlled mainland, meaning the north coast of South America and later the Caribbean coast of Central America as well. English pirates, never punctilious in matters of usage, eventually began slinging the term around casually to denote the Caribbean itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Add a comment