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Why is US Letter paper 8.5″ x 11″? Was Hoover a tree hugger?

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We’re working on a campaign in our studio and Ben, stuffing a letter into an envelope, asks me, “Why are #10 envelopes the size they are?” I answer without looking up. “Well, to perfectly hold a letter-sized sheet folded in three, of course.”

“Uh-huh. And why are letter-sized sheets 8.5 by 11 inches?”

Hmmm…Now that forced me into System 2 thinking (don’t know about System 2 thinking? If you design for good or evil, then the most important book you can read this year is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann). “I have no idea Ben, let’s find out…” As it turned out, the process of finding out about the history of paper lead us to thoughts about the future of paper consumption and waste.

So, why exactly is “U.S. Letter” exactly 8.5 by 11 inches? We have to go back over four hundred years, a time where it is said that North American forests were so thick that a squirrel could get from Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean without touching the ground.

We also have to cross that ocean, to the Netherlands. The Dutch invented the two-sheet mold for papermaking in the 1660s. Apparently, the average maximum stretch of a vatman’s arms was 44″. In terms of depth, many molds were around 17″ front-to-back because the laid lines and watermarks had to run from left to right. So, to maximize the efficiency of papermaking, the Dutch molded 44” x 17” sheets…which cut down nicely to eight 8.5″ x 11″ pieces of paper: just right to pen a personal request for more double salt licorice.

Now fast-forward a few hundred years to a time where machines, rather than people, were making most of the paper.

In 1921, future American president Herbert Hoover’s Elimination of Waste in Industry program created the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes, made up of printing industry reps and the Bureau of Standards.

The committee decided on a standard paper size in the interests of minimizing paper waste, and they stuck with the standard invented by the Dutch in order to help hand-made paper makers stay in business. (The committee actually standardized 17” x 22” as the basis for letter sheets, and 17” x 28” as the basis for “legal” sheets, which yields four annoying 8.5” x 14” sheets that lawyers love to mess us up with.)

Here in Canada in the 1970s, we did our best to leave the Americans alone with Imperial units. The Ontario government set the example of switching from Letter to the Metric A4 size, but gave up in the late 1980s at the same time that the Mulroney federal government bailed on metrication, and went back to U.S. Letter. The schism between what was available and in use outside government was too confusing and expensive to maintain. And so paper remains Imperial for the most part in Canada.

So, ironically, while the Dutch and the rest of the planet has long since moved on to measuring paper in the very logical metric units and grams per square metre and such, we Canadians find ourselves with our American neighbours, still confusing our clients and our staff with “lbs” and “basis weights” and “M’s” and “legal” and “#10 envelopes”.

So that licks the envelope question (sorry!)…however, of course, there is far more we can do today than could be done in Hoover’s day to guarantee paper sustainability and avoid wasting our precious forest resources. Society has entrusted us designers with conspicuous power over how paper is consumed in our society…which is why sustainability must continue to become how we roll as professionals.

For our part, we’ll be releasing the 2013 edition of Do Good Design with publisher Peachpit/Pearson and AIGA Press later this month on Earth Day, and we’re proud to say that this time it will be printed on Mohawk Papers. We chose the papers for this book based on Mohawk’s high post-consumer waste content and FSC certifications … more news on that front really soon!

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Reviewed April 18, 2013

2 Responses to “Why is US Letter paper 8.5″ x 11″? Was Hoover a tree hugger?”

  1. Me says:

    Hoover wasn’t president in 1921. He was elected in 1928.

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