February 20, 2018

"The dimensions of American office paper are standardized so thoroughly, they seem almost naturally occurring — something inherent in the idea of office paper (that is, until you go to Europe, where letter paper is longer and narrower)."

I'm reading "Just-So Tech Stories: How the 8.5" x 11" Piece of Paper Got Its Size/The unfortunate size of office paper is why we double-space our documents" (in The Atlantic) because I bought a made-in-France Clairefontaine spiral notebook and wondered why it wasn't 8 1/2 by 11 inches — it's 8 1/4 by 11 3/4. I felt so awkward with it. It seemed perverse. I really did have that sense that 8 1/2 by 11 is "naturally occurring."

But — according to this article —  8 1/2 by 11 really isn't naturally good for reading. A magazine that wide would use 2 or 3 columns per page to help the eye get from the end of a line to the beginning of the next line. And that's why we double space, to make the beginning of the next line easier to see.
Why do we use a paper size that is so unfriendly for the basic task of reading? According to a very interesting post by Paul Stanley, the rough dimensions of office paper evolved to accommodate handwriting and typewriters with monospaced fonts, both of which rendered many fewer characters per line. "Typewriters," he explains, "produced 10 or 12 characters per inch: so on (say) 8.5 inch wide paper, with 1 inch margins, you had 6.5 inches of type, giving ... around 65 to 78 characters." This, he says, is "pretty close to ideal."
Of course, I'm using my spiral notebook for handwriting, and I produce about 30 characters per line. That should be perfectly easy to read, but I'm less interested in how easy it is to read than in whether my arm feels normal when I'm reaching up to the top lines. That suggests that notebooks should come in different sizes the way men's shirts come with different sleeve lengths.

MORE: Wikipedia has an article "Letter (paper size)." Excerpt:
Ronald Reagan made this the paper size for U.S. federal forms in the early 1980s; previously, the smaller "official" Government letter size, 8.0 by 10.5 inches... was used in government, while standard 8.5 × 11 inch paper was used by most other offices....

The precise origins of the dimensions of US letter size paper (8.5 × 11 in) are not known. The American Forest & Paper Association says that the standard US dimensions have their origin in the days of manual paper making, the 11" length of the standard paper being about a quarter of "the average maximum stretch of an experienced vatman's arms."
Ah! So it is about arms! An experienced vatman's arms. You can see why that extra 3/4 of an inch feels awkward to me, since I am not an experienced vatman.

57 comments:

DKWalser said...

Who knew all experienced vatmen had the same length arms? Or, that the length of their arms was somehow related to their experience?

Megaera said...

I miss "legal size" -- 8.5 x 14. Quite a lot of official documents, like my father's death certificate, are still issued in those dimensions, but since federal courts shifted to 8.5 x 11, and state courts followed suit, there's not much going on in 8.5 x 15. Bet you the old filing cabinets for legal documents are going cheap now.

Hagar said...

Reagan's was a "common sense" reform. Not only were government file binders a mess with all the incoming mail from the outside world on 8½x11, but I was told the Gov't actually paid extra for the 8x10½, since the manufacturers cut all letter paper at 8½x11 and the trimmed off a half inch on two sides and of course charged the Gov't for the extra work and bother.

Bilwick said...

In matters of this nature, I defer to the expertise of Dan Rather.

Unknown said...

In Europe the size closest to 8-1/2 x 11 is called A4.

Marc said...

da da da da da da da da
da da da da da da da da--
VATMAN!!!

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Keyboards are laid out the way they are for archaic reasons that no longer apply. Much better layouts are available, but don't catch on because everyone would have to retool and retrain.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dvorak_Simplified_Keyboard

Chas S. Clifton said...

There is an old typographical maxim that the best line length for readability is one and half times the length of the lowercase alphabet in whatever font you are using.

Gabriel said...

The European/Japanese sizes (A4, etc) are set so that the length is square root of 2 times the width.

If you fold them in half you get the same proportions again but smaller, and two of them. So one A4 sheet folds into to A5 pages.

But that's a property of the proportion, not the actual size. The actual size A4 is just as arbitrary as 8 1/2 by 11.

Balfegor said...

B5 is my favourite size for notebooks. Smaller than A4, but not so small as A5. A good size for slipping out of a bag in an idle moment.

tcrosse said...

Once the paper size was established, one could not become an experienced vatman if his arms were not the correct length. Chicken, meet egg.

Etienne said...

Hmm, I always thought the European paper was in millimeters.

I don't think they can do Base 12. Base 12 hurts their brain.

Balfegor said...

Re: Etienne:

I don't think they can do Base 12. Base 12 hurts their brain.

How far they have fallen from the days when it was 12 Reichsthalers to a Kölner Mark, and 288 Pfennigs to the Reichsthaler (I . . I had to look that up).

Man in PA said...

I reject the premise that 8.5" x 11" paper is "unfriendly for the basic task of reading."

tcrosse said...

How far they have fallen from the days when it was 12 Reichsthalers to a Kölner Mark, and 288 Pfennigs to the Reichsthaler (I . . I had to look that up).

Not so long ago it was 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound Sterling.

Eric said...

I hypothesized that the European paper sizes were based on something European, like the length of some king's foot by the length of a queen's hand, but I learned from Wikipedia that they actually make sense. I'm impressed.

CJinPA said...

Twist on the Althouse Rule:
It's OK to point out the difference between the U.S. and Europe as long as you make Europe look superior.

IF this article is favoring Europe. I'm very busy at work right now.

Ralph L said...

Justin says you must say "vatperson" in Canada.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

Are you being trolled by the experienced vatman's arm length story, or are you trolling us? You can tell that office paper size is not an accident by the similarity between the U.S. paper size and the European. Their size is slightly different, not completely different.

8.5 x 11 is a good size for self-printing booklets. You fold it to 5.5 x 8.5, first printing a "page" on all 4 "sides", then put 2 or 3 staples down the middle.

In the old days, the early 1980s, business people used to send notes and short letters typed on executive size paper (around 7 x 10). I see that my office laser printer has a setting for that, but I haven't seen that in some years. It did look quite classy.

Ralph L said...

21 shillings to a guinea.
5 shillings to a crown.

StephenFearby said...

AA wrote:

"...I'm less interested in how easy it is to read than in whether my arm feels normal when I'm reaching up to the top lines."

In that context (for typing) From AnandTech (2/5/2018) by E. Fylladitakis:

"...The Freestyle Edge is based on the split-board design of the Freestyle series keyboard that the company released back in 2007...As best as we can tell, this appears to be the world’s first ergonomic gaming mechanical keyboard."

"...The unique split layout is a huge change over a typical keyboard and it requires a learning curve but, in terms of comfort, it definitely works. The position of the arms feels much more natural, especially when using the optional lift kit. Using it for just a couple of hours is enough to realize that the strain on the arms, fingers, and tendons is greatly reduced."

"...The greatest advantage of the Freestyle Edge also is its greatest drawback. The layout change requires the user to essentially “reprogram” their brain and muscles. Using the keyboard for a few hours will cover most of that requirement, yet it might take weeks before the user fully adapts to the new layout. And here is the major problem - after using the Freestyle Edge for just two days, it was difficult for me to use any other keyboard.

"...Perhaps someone who is using the Freestyle Edge alongside with a typical keyboard for weeks in parallel can get used to using both of them at the same time, but that will undoubtedly take several weeks of training."

https://www.anandtech.com/show/11631/kinesis-freestyle-edge-split-gaming-keyboard-review/5


Now, there's a challenge for you. Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?

Successfully earning how to use a split keyboard might be akin to learning how to juggle!

Both require reprograming the brain. With this possible benefit:

PSYBLOG
The Mental Benefits of Juggling

"...Some recent work on juggling and mental rotation suggests the answer [does learning how to juggle produce a practical benefit other than learning a new party trick] might be positive.

Mental rotation is an important factor in the way the mind works. Generally people who are better at mental rotation also have stronger mathematical skills, are better at problem solving and have better spatial imagination."

http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/07/the-mental-benefits-of-useless-skills-like-juggling.php


Maybe using this split keyboard gizmo could produce a similar result.

YMMV.

Sam's Hideout said...

Gabriel: you've stated the principle that ISO paper sizes are based on, but the actual standards are specified in whole millimeters, otherwise you'd have (rather inconvenient) irrational numbers for paper dimensions. The next size down takes the longest length and divides by 2 then rounds down to the next whole millimeter. So the mathematical ideal gives way to practicality in the paper standards.

Amexpat said...

"A4" in Norwegian can mean the common European paper size or something very standard or someone living rigidly by the rules.

I grow up using the 8.5 x 11, but now, after living many years overseas, it looks too fat and bulky. I prefer sleekness of A4 when printing documents. For writing by hand, legal size is best.

tcrosse said...

Justin says you must say "vatperson" in Canada

Personne de cuve, s'il vous plait.

Balfegor said...

RE: tcrosse:

Not so long ago it was 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound Sterling.

Ah, but the British aren't part of Europe! They held a vote on it and everything!

I suppose they do use ISO paper sizes, though, as far as I can recall.

Gabriel said...

@Sam's Hideout:So the mathematical ideal gives way to practicality in the paper standards.

Not necessary to round down because you specify the long edge as the diagonal of the square defined by the short edge.

No matter how you manufacture something, you will never hit a specific size exactly; there will be variations and a specified tolerance, and that is just as true for an integer number of millimeters as for a true square-root of two times the short side.

It's easy to make something an irrational size. For example, take a piece of pipe 1" in diameter, and warp a string around its circumference, cut the string. Your string is 1/2 pi inches long, in principle exactly. If someone a thousand miles away from you need the same standard, tell him what you did so he can make his own string.

Specifying the procedure of constructing the irrationally-sized length is no different from specifying the size in an integer unit of measurement.

Gabriel said...

@Sam's Hideout: Every fundamental standard has already been defined as measurement procedure just as hard (or easy) to follow as laying out the diagonal of a square:

1 second: The duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.

1 meter: The distance travelled by light in vacuum in 1/299792458 second.

That's how your millimeters are defined.

And so forth. To make your meter stick, or your clock, or your micrometer, they create a standard much easier to use that is correct within a specified tolerance of the real definition and use that to calibrate.

Paul Zrimsek said...

We've run out of paper. Light the Vat Signal!

Michael K said...

This goes back to the quarto sheet size.

A quarto (from Latin quartō, ablative form of quartus, fourth [2]) is a book or pamphlet made up of one or more full sheets of paper on which 8 pages of text were printed, which were then folded two times to produce four leaves. Each leaf of a quarto book thus represents one fourth the size of the original sheet. Each group of 4 leaves (called a "gathering" or "quire") could be sewn through the central fold to attach it to the other gatherings to form a book.

The full sheet is four times that size.

Billy Oblivion said...

Letter is 8.5 x 11 because it is 1/2 of "Tabloid", which is 11x17. Which is also 1/2 of "Ledger".

We don't make paper in lots of sizes, we make it in one or two, and trim to what we want. It follows that we would trim by some multiple of two (cut in half, stack, cut in half again).

Walt said...

In the early 70’s, depending on county and federal court, we had to stock 11, 13, and 14, inch papers, with different sorts of different marginal rules,. Then all courts went to 11 inches, leaving us with with expensive and wasteful file cabinets. Then some courts wanted recycled papers. Gah!

Sebastian said...

"Why do we use a paper size"

Assumes a fact not in evidence.

rhhardin said...

We used 4-hole notebooks and paper so that they'd not be of use outside the company.

Caligula said...

"Keyboards are laid out the way they are for archaic reasons that no longer apply." BUT, isn't it better to have a usable standard than it would be to deal with numerous incompatible keyboard layouts?

BUT what's particularly annoying is that phone keypads do not have the same layout as calculator keypads. Phones have 1-2-3 on the top line, calculators have 7-8-9 on the top line. And that's so even when these "keypads" are just forms on a screen (as is often the case now).

Here the culprit is easier to find: pushbutton phones were designed long after electromechanical calculators had standardized their 10-key keypads. And we know where those phones came from: the old AT&T, aka "Ma Bell." Apparently they just knew better which layout was better, and decided to standardize on one that was upside-down from the already standardized calculator layout. So, now we're stuck with both.


Then again, the great standardization of mechanical fasteners (the diameters and thread counts of screws, bolts, and nuts) was done in the USA during WWI when the federal gov't demanded vendors do so, so you'd have a chance of being able to repair equipment in the field if/when a screw fell out. Before then, you'd often have to buy mating fasteners of the same brand. I would have thought paper-sheet sizes would have been standardized at that time but, apparently they were not.


"What makes standards interesting is that there are so many [incompatible versions] of them!"

Earnest Prole said...

Writing is such a uniquely personal act. I can do it only with a black rolling-ball pen from Japan, fine, not extra-fine.

Beldar said...

I'm just old enough to have used legal-sized paper (8-1/2"x14") for legal documents including court filings.

Michael said...

Althouse

I would also give the Japanese notebooks a try. The Japanese are wild for paper, notebooks, pens. Amazon sells the "Campus wide" notebook which is very happy to have fountain pens cruising its pages. Smaller than A4 with a stiff back.
Clairfontaine does not have enough bite for a fountain pen in my opinion.

Have a look at fountainpennetwork.com on which site you will see true pen, paper and nib maniacs. Great stuff on inks.

Gahrie said...


Ah, but the British aren't part of Europe! They held a vote on it and everything!

They still need to seal the Chunnel.

Clyde said...

Nothing from the rest of world is going to be in inches; they all use metric measurements, so even if the general size were to be similar, it would be off by a little bit in both height and width.

gilbar said...

"really did have that sense that 8 1/2 by 11 is "naturally occurring."
that's on account of because it IS naturally occurring .
GOD Wants us to use this size

buwaya said...

Paper, bah.
Obsolete foolishness.
I abolished it long ago.

gilbar said...

"aka "Ma Bell." Apparently they just knew better"

The interesting thing, is that Everyone, in every country; hates The Phone Company

But not to worry, once TPC gets approval to inject a microphone into every person's brain, all the troubles will be over!

Lewis Wetzel said...

I find monospaced fonts more difficult to read than kerned fonts.
When is the last time you saw a magazine that was 8.5"x11"?

Bruce Hayden said...

“In the early 70’s, depending on county and federal court, we had to stock 11, 13, and 14, inch papers, with different sorts of different marginal rules,. Then all courts went to 11 inches, leaving us with with expensive and wasteful file cabinets. Then some courts wanted recycled papers. Gah!”

Even now, in patent law, you need both Letter and A4. Used to need Legal too. US filings are typically Letter size, while international (Patent Cooperation Treaty) filings are required to be A4. That means separate trays for printers and copiers (plus Legal, for legacy stuff). And, when converting a US filing to PCT (before the end of the year), you had to convert Letter to A4. Text isn’t too bad - you get a little more per page with Letter size, but not significant, unless you have tables. But the drawings can be a major pain. The USPTO (EPO, etc) has strict standards for margins and font sizes. Examiners typically just reject drawings when they don’t fit within the new, narrower margins, or shrink font size to fit. But sometimes, you find a situation where they just chop the drawings at the required margins - akin to judges who chop briefs at their prescribed page limits, throwing out the excess pages (typically containing their conclusions and certifications).

Bruce Hayden said...

“I find monospaced fonts more difficult to read than kerned fonts.”

Tell that to Dan Rather with his fake TANG memos.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Paper sizes are relatively simple. Try looking at envelope or "card" sizes sometime. Especially Japanese sizes. Oh my aching head.
I spent 12 years in the laser printer business dealing with this mess.
Here's Lesson 1 in Fred's Big Book of Color Printing:
"There's no such thing as white paper."

Sam L. said...

The letter Dan Rather had saying Bush was naughty in the Air Guard got blown for the font and the size--NOT 8x10.5.

Bleach Drinkers Curing Coronavirus Together said...

Are you sure Paul Stanley knows as much about paper as Gene Simmons?

Especially long... narrow... paper?

Lewis Wetzel said...

Blogger Michael K said...
This goes back to the quarto sheet size.

A quarto (from Latin quartō, ablative form of quartus, fourth [2]) is a book or pamphlet made up of one or more full sheets of paper on which 8 pages of text were printed, which were then folded two times to produce four leaves. Each leaf of a quarto book thus represents one fourth the size of the original sheet. Each group of 4 leaves (called a "gathering" or "quire") could be sewn through the central fold to attach it to the other gatherings to form a book.


Books used to be assembled without cutting the division between the pages. One of the signs that Gatsby is a phony is that he has a magnificent library, but the books' pages aren't cut, meaning that he has never opened them.

The Godfather said...

The legend about legal size paper, as I heard it, was that there were per-page filing fees for deeds and other legal documents, so of course you used the longest possible paper to save fees. Why that wasn't 24 inches I don't know.

In England I undrstand that they still maintain lots of records on scrolls. They probably do in Israel too, and you have to read them backwards.

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, my favorite notebook size for handwritten notes was 6 x 9.5. Far easier to carry around and write on than the too-wide 8.5 x 11 notebooks. Then again I was mainly doing math work so there wasn't frequently a need for width.

tcrosse said...

There must be a relationship between the size of toilet paper and the length of ones arms.

Quaestor said...

In England, I understand that they still maintain lots of records on scrolls.

In England, they are called rolls, not scrolls, and they aren't like a true scroll like a Torah, i.e. a long sheet of vellum wound around a pair of sticks. Rolls are often made of parchment and consist of long sheets about 3 to 4 feet long which are sewn together at the top. Then the whole thing is rolled up for storage. Except for the fact that they are rolled up instead of being bound in blue cardboard Medieval English rolls are much like our modern court documents.

sykes.1 said...

The standard letter sheet is part of the standards sizes for drafting paper sheets:

http://www.wmw.ca/wmw/sizes.html

Any older person (male) who was trained in engineering drafting will recognize the sequence of sizes in the linked page. How the standard sizes of drafting sheets was decided, I don't know. But they are convenient when one is sitting a a drafting table making drawings the old-fashioned way by hand.

Aaron said...

Reminds me of the old (and apocryphal) story of why the standard width of railroad tracks is four feet, eight inches apart.

Why are they that way? Because that's what the width was in England. Why was that width used in England? Because that's the gauge the tramways used before the railroads. Why? Because the tramways were built using the same tools as the wagon builders, and that's the width of the wagon wheels. Again, why? Because the wagons need to travel in the wheel ruts of the old Roman roads. But where did those wheel ruts come from? From Roman chariots. And Roman chariots were that width because? That was the width necessary to fit behind a horse.

So the next time you ask "What horse's ass came up with this specification?" You might be correct.

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Thomas W said...

As I recall (back when I worked for the government in the mid 1970s) the 8x10.5 paper was mandated on environmental / cost grounds -- most typed memos and letters were less than 1 page so the smaller size would mean less ground up wood would be used. My impression was that this smaller size was a fairly recent mandate.

This is from memory, a quick web search doesn't turn anything up.