How did 8-1/2×11 and 8-1/2×14 become the standard paper sizes?

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Dear Cecil: How did we arrive at our standardized sizes of 8½x11 inches for letter paper and 8½x14 for “legal paper”? Was it totally random or was there some practical reason? Phillip Raskin, Plantation, Florida


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Cecil replies:

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 ordinary folks can fit in 11.

Some say legal paper is used because when you’re taking notes in a courtroom you don’t have to make noise changing sheets as often. A likely story, you may say, but we don’t really have a better one.

As for letter paper, it’s cut from a 17×22 sheet, the mold for which, legend has it, was the largest a paper maker could conveniently carry in days of yore. It’s claimed Henry VIII standardized this size, called 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 12×15 to 14×18, depending on the grade, not 17×22; and (3) there’s no evidence English paper sizes were standardized until long after Henry VIII.

For the facts, such as they are, we turn to paper historian John Bidwell, who writes, “I believe our standard 8½x11 typing paper is a quarter sheet of what eighteenth and nineteenth-century papermakers would call ‘writing medium.’ Printers used a medium sheet of 18×23 inches but stationers preferred a smaller version of medium measuring 17×22 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 [now the National Institute of Standards and Technology], which is part of the Department of Commerce. These standards define writing medium as 17×22 inches.”

OK, but why 17×22? I say it was a random shot — you know how we Heisenbergians loathe causation — abetted somewhat by the fact that 8½x11 makes a nice-sized sheet.

The situation with legal size (8½x14) is equally murky. It arguably does derive from foolscap, a traditional paper size.

The type of foolscap used for writing was typically 16¾x13½ inches. This size sheet was often folded to make a page 8-3/8×13½. Among other things the half sheets were used for writing official documents.

At this point we’re obliged to make something of a stab. We note that by the 1870s a paper size called legal cap or legal blank had emerged that was 8½ inches wide and anywhere from 13 to 16 inches long.

It seems reasonable to suppose, therefore, that somebody just started cutting foolscap pages in half and selling them to lawyers, who’d buy anything.

Eight-and-a-half-by-whatever isn’t a world standard. Letter paper in Europe is a size called A4, which is 210×297 millimeters — about 8¼x11½ inches.

The basic A-series sheet, A0, is one square meter in area, 841x1189mm. 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 1 wide by the square root of 2 deep (1:1.414…). It’s a bit compulsive and you won’t be surprised to learn it was thought up by the Germans. A-series paper became an international standard, though not an American one, in 1930.

Cecil Adams

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