8.5 X 11: An Abridged History Behind Paper Size
Have you ever thought about the reasoning behind our standard paper size? American paper fills our office filing cabinets, notebooks, and printers, so the idea of their size is almost second nature. 8.5″ x 11″ even defines our PDF’s in cyberspace. But why is this size the standard for Americans? In Europe, letter paper is longer and narrower. 8.5″ x 11″ is too wide for 12pt font, rendering as many as 100 characters per line. This is why we have to double space our documents, which helps the eye stay on its line and find it’s way easier to the next. Who decided that 8×11 would be the standard size for American paper? And how did this size even come about? Read on for more paper history.
It Starts With The Dutch
Our adventure starts centuries back, well before paper machines dominated the papermaking process. In the late 1600’s, the Dutch invented the two-sheet mold: A wooden frame that was used to hold pulp while it dries. The size of this frame was determined by the maximum stretch of a paper maker’s arms, about 44″. In terms of depth, many molds were around 17″ front to back. The resulting 44” x 17” sheets were cut down into 8.5″ x 11″ pieces of paper to maximize the efficiency of papermaking. However, not all papermakers had the same length arm span. Thus not all sheets were the same size. Until the 1980s, a wide variety of “letter” sizes existed, varying based on the manufacturer and the region where the paper was made.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and machines dominated the trade. During this time, the United States had to decide on a standard size for paper.
The next step to standardization came in 1921. Future American president Herbert Hoover’s Elimination of Waste in Industry program created the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes. The committee was made of industry reps and the Bureau of Standards. Together they decided on a standard paper size in the interests of eliminating waste. The decision to stick with the standard invented by the Dutch in the hopes that it would help handmade papermakers stay in business. They standardized the 17” x 22” as the basis for letter sheets. They also standardized 17” x 28” as the basis for “legal” sheets, which is commonly used for lawyers.
You Can Really Thank Regan
Continuing on, the United States actually used two different paper sizes. Separate committees came up with separate standards. 8″x10.5″ was used for the government and 8.5″ x 11″, standardized by Hoover’s committee above, was for the rest of the country. When these committees found out about each other, they disagreed until the early 1980’s. This was when Reagan proclaimed that 8.5″ x 11″ was the official standard paper size.
This paper size was also used to accommodate handwriting and typewriters with a monospaced font. Both rendered fewer characters per line, about 10-12 characters per inch. On an 8.5″ sheet of paper with 1″ margins, you have about 6.5″ of writing space. This yields 65-78 characters per line, which is considered ideal.
With the changing times and font, one thing is here to stay. There are so many systems and objects built around the 8.5″ x 11″ paper, so chances are those dimensions are here to stay. Even on computers, where online documents do not need to use standard paper size. The continual use of this size is a hat tip to the offline world.
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