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Traditional Paper Sizes

Yesterday I received an unexpected query asking if I could give information about why 8.5inches X 11 inches became the standard size for letter paper in the United States. I'm afraid that I couldn't give a very authoritative reply, but I found the quest interesting and I thought that subscribers to Origami-L might like to see the result. I append it herewith.


I do not live in the United States and am not in the paper trade, so I have no inside knowledge. My interest in paper sizes came through the International sizes (A3, A4, A5 and the like.) These are now universally used in England, as in most of the world outside the United States. They all have the curious ratio of sides of one to the square root of two. This proportion is what has come to be known as the Silver Ratio on the analogy of the ancient Golden Ratio or Golden Section. I became interested in this, not only because of its geometrical properties, but also from the point of view of origami or paperfolding. The implications of this geometry have still not been fully worked out.

The essential point about it is that if any A-sized sheet of paper is cut in half, the ratios of the sides of the two resultant halves are in the same proportion of one to the square root of two. Obviously, this can result in great saving of wastage on cutting up for smaller sizes. The International size A4 is fairly near to that of American Letter paper. Both are handy sizes for business correspondence. Both have become standard in their respective parts of the world. The introduction of photo-copiers, fax machines and computer printers has greatly encouraged standardisation and most machines can cope with either the International Standard or the American Standard.

I'm rehearsing information which I'm sure you already know, but it is from our present conventions that we look back on older conventional sizes of paper. Some of the common American sizes of which I am aware are "letter size" (8 1/2 inches X 11 inches) and "legal size" (8 1/2 inches x 13 1/2" inches). Perhaps inaccurately, in England, I knew these sizes as "American Quarto" and "American Foolscap" respectively. The reason was that they corresponded to two common British sizes of office paper. When I began my office career in 1953, the common British sizes were, going down form the largest:

Brief: 13" X 16". This was used by lawyers for their briefs to Counsel. These were typed right across the large page. When complete, the brief was folded horizontally and then horizontally again (rather in the way we fold newspapers). The brief was then tied with pink string (or red tape, if you like.) The same paper was also used for abstracts of title to property. The tied up bundles were filed not in filing cabinets but on shelves. Nowadays, briefs and abstracts of title are typed on ordinary A4, which isn't nearly so romantic!

Foolscap: 13" X 8". This was used for reports and longer letters, where "quarto" would be considered too small. This size is not very far removed from the American "Legal" size.

Quarto: 10" X 8".This was used for most letters. It was used where American "Letter size " would be used, although it was considerably smaller. It is now replaced by A4, but in many respects it was a more useful, handy size.

Sixmo: 6 1/2" .this was used for short letters. it was used in horizontal or "landscape format" and was considered quite attractive and less formal than quarto or octavo.

Octavo: 8" x 5": This was also used for short letters. It was used in vertical or "portrait" format, but was becoming replaced by Sixmo.

When International sizes first started to replace the old sizes of office paper, A4 took the place of Brief, Foolscap and Quarto, while A5 took the place of Sixmo and Octavo. However, many users found that because of standardisation it became as cheap to use A4 for all purposes and the use of A5 declined. The terms, "quarto", "sixmo" and "octavo" are used in this context in a somewhat imprecise way. Just as "folio" means that the original sheet of paper is folded one, so "quarto" means that the original sheet has been folded twice, so that the resultant size is one quarter of the original. "Sixmo" means that it is one sixth of the original and "octavo" that is one eighth of the original. But accurate use of the terms should specify to the size of the original unfolded and uncut sheet.In the case of these English office papers it was one known as "Large Post", having a size of 16 1/22 X 21". However, Large Post was only one of many basic sizes of paper in use for all kinds of purposes at one time in England.

Another size was "Foolscap", the size of the unfolded sheet of which was 27" x17" What we knew in the office as "Foolscap" was more accurately "Foolscap Quarto", one quarter the size of he original Foolscap sheet. I formerly thought that "Foolscap" was so called because it could be twisted into a cone and was used for making dunces' caps. However, I have now discovered that it was so called because it bore a watermark showing a fool's head and cap. This was an ancient kind of paper, showing how old some of the sizes were.

All these different old sizes indicate that standardisation of paper sizes in England is only fairly recent. The sizes of pages of books are still not standardised. In other words, paper was made of such-and-such a size according to the whim of the particular paper maker. And in the days before big business, when paper was all made by hand, there were countless small paper makers, each producing, not only their own type and quality of paper, but also their own sizes. The same must have been true in the United States. I have come across a reference which argues that there used to be an untrimmed paper size in the ratio of 12" X 9". This was pretty close to the Golden Section. (Not the Silver Section of the International sizes.)

However, I can only think that this was one among many paper sizes in the United States. This untrimmed size was then trimmed to 8 1/2" X 11", which is the size of American letter paper and is suggested that this was its origin. However, this still begs the question why the untrimmed size of 12" x 9" was chosen in the first place, and why the golden ratio should have been chosen. I suspect that the real answer is that paper users chose to use the size of paper that was most convenient for them, among all the multitude of sizes that were at one time available.

It is probably that the introduction of the typewriter (the original models of which had short carriages) also influenced the choice of the size of paper. Mass production then came in and the more popular sizes became cheaper, so encouraging more people to use them instead of other sizes. There was nothing sacrosanct about any particular size. The fact that the accepted sizes in Britain were different from those in the United States illustrates this.

In looking up paper sizes, I have been surprised to find how little is written in the encyclopaedias and in particular in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (both the 11th edition and the present 15th edition.) There are, however, several Web sites that deal with paper sizes, although none of them on a full historical basis. Most concentrate on the International sizes.

They include:

I'm afraid that this give a conjectural, but I have enjoyed looking things up and I hope that this note may be of some interest.

David Lister
18th December 1999

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