The Monarchy, King George and Origins of the 8.5x11" Format
“The rough dimensions of our office paper (8.5x11") 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 8.5x11" at arm’s length
The 8.5x11" 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 8.5x11" the official size for U.S. federal forms. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the 8.5x11" 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.
I secretly still hope for metric to arrive at our shores...maybe someday.
Sabine Lenz is the founder of PaperSpecs.com, 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.