A chronicle of why 8.5 x 11 came to be the common paper size.

“We can’t overestimate the value of computers. Yes, they are great for playing games and forwarding funny emails, but real business is done on paper. Okay?”
– 
Michael Scott, Regional Manager
Dunder Mifflin, Inc.

From the earliest days of pounding out papyrus (the kind made from reeds…not the world’s second most hated font) by the banks of the Nile, through the scroll-toting “hear-ye’s” and illuminating monks of medieval Europe, to kites, dragons, and screened walls of the Orient, paper has proven one of the most useful, versatile, and scalable inventions of human kind. MWB, being a creative agency, well let’s just say we love us some good paper. All the different textures and styles…nothing gets our graphic designers going like coated, toothy stock.

Despite Twain-esque reports of its demise, paper continues to survive well into the digital age. As I’m writing this piece, I’m looking at the stacks of not-so-neatly organized sheets covering my desk (and that’s liberally using the word, ‘organized.’) However, for a product that has such a venerable history of versatility, our modern times have resulted, to a great degree, in homogeny vis a vis paper size. Virtually every piece of scattered paper on my desk is 8.5 inches wide, by 11 inches tall.

If you do your business in the United States, unless you’re a lawyer or a real estate agent, chances are 99% of your interactions with paper — receipts being the notable exception — are with 8.5 x 11 sheets. So how did we get to those seemingly random, ubiquitous dimensions? The answer lies, quite literally, at arm’s length.

Nahnahnahnahnahnahnahnahnahnahnahnah…..Vatman…

It’s known as “letter” size paper. Or A4 size paper if you’re an unnecessarily over-complicated printer/copier. And as noted in this piece from The Atlantic, 8.5 x 11 is actually a horrible size for paper, from the user-experience standpoint. Its width allows for too many characters on each row, thus making it difficult to keep your place reading left to right. This is why we Americans have a preference to double-space our docs.

So, yeah. Our most common paper size actually makes reading (which is 50% of the reason for paper in the first place) not that easy. So what gives?

Let’s travel back to enlightenment Europe in the days when paper production was yet to become industrialized, but had become necessary to hand-make at increasingly greater quantities (thanks, Gutenberg). It was in the Netherlands that the ever-so-resourceful dam-building Dutch invented the “two sheet mold” method of paper making. So a wooden frame would hold the pulp that would eventually become paper, and lore has it that these frames were built the width of a paper-maker’s (also called a “vatman”…not to be confused with Adam West) wingspan. The resulting giant sheet was then cut into equal parts of eight to make more usable. While ye olde paper making process doesn’t explain the standardized dimensions we have today, it does belay how paper sheets were generally cut to a size something close to our standard 8.5 x 11. Had Shaq lived in medieval Holland and been the Master Vat-ster, today we’d likely be printing away on poster-sized sheets. But folks were a bit smaller back in the day. As a side note, we have no clear answer on what Adam West’s wingspan might have been.

hand-crank paper making thingy

Hail to the Chiefs

Skip over a few European wars….a couple of revolutions…the age of Mercantilism…and the assassination of Arch-Duke Francis Ferdinand (arch-dukes always be getting assassinated…), and we arrive in Prohibition American (whoop-whoop), early 20th century. In 1921, future U.S. President and dam aficionado Herbert Hoover was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. He oversaw an initiative called…wait for it…The Elimination of Waste in Industry Program, a component of which was…wait for it again…The Committee of Simplification of Paper Sizes. Apart from having an uber-descriptive name and likely being about as much fun to attend as a proof-reading conference, the committee decided to standardize down to not one but two paper sizes. The legacy of this move is felt to this day in those annoying “legal” sized documents the aforementioned lawyers and real estate agents like to use to screw with us.

Surprisingly, the system-wide singular standardization to 8.5 x 11 inches is more modern than you might suppose. On into the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of the Paper Simplification Committee had waned, as “letter” sized paper still ranged in a a few different dimensions. In the early 1980’s, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan (who’s nickname was “Dutch”…I know…this is getting Matrix-y with all the historical coincidences) decreed that all federal forms be made 8.5 x 11 inches. (I do LOVE myself a good decree.) As with so many other things, the private sector soon followed suit, and the common “A4” letter size was standardized.

So, from the Vatman’s arms to the Resolute Desk, that’s the story of paper’s journey to the seemingly random size that jams today’s copiers. Also, we inexplicably alluded to “dams” more than you’d think for a history piece on paper would have. I’ll be damned.