Turning over a new new leaf

by Scribble Monboddo

Offices are often dull places for the stationery aficionado, let's be honest. But now that most of us no longer get to visit one very often, for obvious reasons, perhaps we can use the opportunity to do things a bit differently. Take paper, for instance.

Generally speaking, office environments use a pretty predictable set of paper sizes for letters, publications, and account books. If you're of a certain vintage in Britain, you might still call it 'foolscap'. Americans still refer to 'letter' size even though it's largely in use for printing emails and, err, electoral college certificates. Most of the world just names it A4. Boring, isn't it? But of course, there's a story behind each.

Foolscap is, naturally, a contraction of 'fool's cap'. As a child I assumed this was because it was about big enough to fold into a rather silly hat, but the truth is almost as absurd. It seems to be a reference to a fool's-cap-and-bell watermark used to indicate a particular producer's stationery, which legend has it was ordered  for use by the parliament of the interregnum in preference to the old stock featuring a royal crest. It is in turn linked to the old system of paper sizes which, while barely standardised, indicated how many times the starting sheet had been folded. One fold was simply a folio, or even a first folio. Fold again and four rectangles were produced, making a quarto. Fold that, and eight oblongs were visible as a result, or an octavo. Now you know how Shakespeare studies and origami are so frequently combined. Foolscap was a bit uninspiring to write on, though, issued as it was to desk clerks and typing pools.

Not to be out-done, matters are similarly obscure and perverse on the other side of the pond. Literally no-one else honours 'letter' size as any sort of benchmark, and its origins are unknown, but there have been herculean efforts to standardise. In the early twentieth century there were even - woops! - two entirely separate committees working on the problem. In 1921 Herbert Hoover took a break from obstructing the flow of the Colorado to instigate the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes, which concluded that 8.5 inches by 11 inches should become standard, while the unrelated Permanent Conference on printing reported a year later that 8-inch-by-10.5-inch was just the thing, actually. Seventy years on, the American National Standards instituted finally settled on the former, and even deigned to define it in SI units as 216 × 279 millimetres. Will wonders never cease? That's perilously close to the 210 × 297mm of A4, obviously, but still sufficiently perverse to distinguish the output of Uncle Sam's scriptorium from any 'R.O.W.' correspondence. These things are awfully important, apparently.

In this century, almost everywhere, the office uses A4. This does have a moderately interesting history, since the aspect ratio is 1 x √2 which means that two sheets of A4 make a sheet of A3, etc. That makes life easier for printers and stationers, which probably accounts for its successful adoption as the international standard during the latter half of the twentieth century. The origins are curious, in that the use of a square root to calculate dimensions dates back further than one might expect - first recorded in 1786 by the oddball physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who was also interested in lightning, literary fiction, the London theatre scene and, less tastefully, young ladies of limited means. Lower Saxony was as ethically uncomfortable as many other places in the eighteenth century, to modern eyes at least. He had a point about the elegance of scalable paper sizing, mind.

Now, if we're being honest, A4 does have its uses. But by golly is it uninspiring. It's not where you record your best ideas, is it? So while you're hunkered down in the home office, why not try something different? A5 is a much more comfortable size for working out creative thoughts, and two pages neatly scan onto A4 if they really need to be reproduced that way. B5 is in between, but follows a similar aspect ratio so is easy to 'blow up' to A4 if colleagues demand it. Then there's A6, which is small enough for many pockets and handbags but produces exactly four sides to a sheet of A4; perfect for story-boarding a forthcoming corporate breakthrough once the plague years are over. If no-one else needs to see what you're up to, there's even the more-or-less standard 'pocket-size' (90 x 140mm, usually) which is highly portable and available in a dizzying range of paper types from graphite-only to ink-friendly and all points in between. You could pick something which you look forward to writing in, with an attractive cover to wave around in those interminable video conferences, and it doesn't need to break the bank either. Go on, live a little!