The Monarchy, King George and Origins of the 8.5×11″ Format

“The rough dimensions of our office paper (8.5×11″) evolved to accommodate handwriting and typewriters with mono-spaced fonts.” Say what?

What began harmlessly enough as a discussion on one of my LinkedIn groups (gotta love those groups), quickly went downhill. It even got political and downright patriotic. Folks calling out the monarchy and King George (How did that guy think he could possibly run a foreign country?). A founding member of the British Assn. of Paper Historians even chimed in. Wow.

As happens on occasion, the group rather quickly lost track of the original topic, but we won’t. ;-))

Keeping 8.5×11 at arm’s length
The 8.5×11″ sheet, our most common letter size, is often confusing to outsiders—i.e., people that come from countries using the metric system, like yours truly. But, in some odd way, there is a reason for it.

Rumor has it that these dimensions originated from the days when paper was still made by hand. A wooden frame used to hold the pulp was constructed; its size determined by the average maximum span of an experienced paper maker’s arms.

The resulting “parent” sheet was then cut into eight pages to make them more manageable. The length of each of those sheets became 11″. Granted, this doesn’t explain the width or aspect ratio. But one out of three isn’t bad.

You can thank Ronald Reagan
Not all paper makers’ arms—and thus all parent sheets—were created equal though. Until the 1980s, a wide variety of “letter” sizes existed, varying based on the manufacturer and the region where the paper was made.

Then in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made 8.5×11″ the official size for U.S. federal forms. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the 8.5×11″ norm defines our filing cabinets, folders and binders—even our PDFs in cyberspace. And because we have all these systems and objects built around the 8.5 x11″ sheet of paper, chances are those dimensions are here to stay.

Sabine Lenz is the founder of, the first online paper database and community specifically designed for paper specifiers.

Growing up in Germany, Sabine started her design career in Frankfurt, before moving to Australia and then the United States. She has worked on design projects ranging from corporate identities to major road shows and product launches. From start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, her list of clients included Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Deutsche Bank, IBM and KPMG.

Seeing designers struggle worldwide to stay current with new papers and paper trends inspired Sabine to create PaperSpecs, an independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database and weekly e-newsletter. She is also a speaker on paper issues and the paper industry. Some refer to her lovingly as the "paper queen" who combines her passion for this wonderful substrate called paper with a hands-on approach to sharing her knowledge. 

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  • Leslie Altobelli

    Ever wonder how we came to use the 8 1/2 x 11 size? Sabine Lenz has some answers!

  • Michael Jahn


    United States History
    Not until World War I or shortly after was a standard paper size agreed to in the United States. Interestingly enough, within six months of each other, two different paper sizes were set as the standard; one for the government and one for the rest of us.

    1. In 1921, the first director of the Bureau of the Budget established an interagency advisory group with the President’s approval called the Permanent Conference on Printing which established the 8" x 10½" as the general U.S. government letterhead standard. This extended an earlier establishment made by the former President Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce at the time, who established the 8" x 10½" as the standard letterhead size for his department.

    2. Now, during the same year, a Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes consisting of printing industry representatives was appointed to work with the Bureau of Standards as part of Hoover’s program for the Elimination of Waste in Industry. This group came up with basic sizes for all types of printing and writing papers. The size for "letter" was a 17" x 22" sheet while the "legal" size was 17" x 28" sheet. The later known U.S. letter format was these sizes halved (8 ½" x 11" and 8 ½" by 14").

    Even in the selection of the 8 ½" x 11", no special analysis was made to prove this was the optimum size for commercial letterhead. The Committee that developed the sizes did so using one objective – "to reduce inventory requirements for paper into sizes which would cut from a minimum trimming waste."

    1. Labarre Dictionary of Paper and Paper-Making Terms, 1937 Edition.
    2. Kuhn, Markus . 1996.
    3. Dunn, A. D. 1972. Notes on the Standardization of Paper Sizes.

  • Mr. N

    8 1/2" x 11" was sold as "letter" size copier paper long before Reagan considered running for office. I understand that he made it the "official" size, but it seems to me that this size as "letter" was decided long before hand. I’ve also seen the e-mail refering to the width of railroad tracks having been determined by the width of a horses hindquarters. I woudl prefer a more difinitive source, thank you.

  • David K.

    There were various governmental units, especially some courts, that ruled not too many years ago that 8-1/2×11 would be used and "legal" size 8-1/2×14 would no longer be acceptable. This would end the need for legal size file cabinets and/or hand folding legal size documents from 14" to 11" in order to cram them in letter size file drawers.