Ambiguous: the History of Legal Sized Paper

By Jason Giesler, Library Intern

Necessitating larger file cabinets, failing to fit in standard binders, and a real pain in the neck to copy and scan, one wonders, what are the origins of 8 1/2″ x 14” sized legal paper?

There are several historical stories relating to the adoption of legal sized paper. According to one story, during the time of Henry VIII, paper was printed in 17″ x 22” sheets because this was the largest size of mold that papermakers could carry. These large sheets were known as foolscap. Legend has it that lawyers would simply cut the foolscap in half and use the sheets for official documents. Lawyers liked longer paper so that they could take more notes than would fit on a normal page.

Whatever the history, all standard paper sizes in the United States trace their origin to the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes that was formed in the Bureau of Standards in 1921. The Committee consisted of top paper industry leaders and its purpose was to eliminate waste by standardizing paper sizes. The committee adopted two commercial sizes: 17″ x 28″ and 17″ x 22″. Letter and legal sizes were created by simply folding these in half two times. The committee gave no special justification for the sizes that it adopted.

Thus, standard legal and letter paper size appears to have emerged by accident. It appears that legal sized paper will continue to exist and be the cause of many paper jams in the near future. Perhaps one solution to paper jamming problems is to hire an IT cat like this one!!

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