The Lister List

Origins of Paper Sizes

I wonder if I may add to what has already been written about paper sizes.

The subject was last discussed in Origami-L in January of this year. Karen Reeds alerted subscribers to the Web site already mentioned by Jorma Okansen and which I can strongly recommend at:

This site appears to be in Germany, and indeed, Germany was one of the first countries to adopt the international sizes, before the 1939 - 1945 War. The matter was made the subject of a German DIN Standard. However, I understand that the idea for the standards originated much earlier, in the 19th Century.

Today, the International Paper Sizes are the subject of an International Standard; ISO 216, issued by the International Standards Organisation, the terms of which are incorporated in the standards of the various separate national standards authorities.

The scope of the standard paper sizes is quite extensive and more complicated than would appear to a casual observer. There are, in fact, two broad kinds of sizes. one of them is the finished size, such as that of A4 at 210 x 297 mm, with which most of us are familiar. In addition, however, there are sizes for UNCUT papers which are to be trimmed to the finished sizes. The B series is not intended for this purpose. It is merely a series of paper sizes intermediate between the A sizes.

Another point to be made is that the paper sizes are rounded off to the neares millimetre, so that they are not precisely in the ration of one to the square root of two. This means that commercial paper is not in exact ratio and if you want better, you must cut your own. Neverltheless, commercial paper is satisfactory for most purposes and the theory of folding A4 paper is beginning to build up nicely. I am collecting examples of A4 folds, but I do not think that the geometry of A4 folding has yet been fully worked out. it makes a nice change from working with square paper.

Speaking of the B series, they are rarely seen, which is a pity, because I think they would be very useful, especially B4 (250 x 353), B5 (176 x 250) and B6 (125 x 176). However, in a booklet on the subject issued by the British Standards Instiution, the following paragraph appears:

"Details of the ISO supplementary (B) series of trimmed sizes are given in an appendix, as it is felt that these should not come into general use in the United Kingdom. The ISO Recommendation states that the sizes of the ISO-B series are intended for use only in exceptional circumstances, when sizes are needed intermediate between and two adjacent sizes of the A series."

A pity, I think.

Abraham Limpo writes that going larger from A0, paper which is twice the size of A0 is desgnated A00. However, I have come acroses another system which has paper twice A0 as "2A0" and paper twice 2A0 as "4A0". Perhaps standardisation is not quite complete!

The international sizes were not generally adopted in Britain until the 1960s and 1970s. Before then the usual size we used in my legal office for business letters was "quarto" (10 inches x 8 inches). For larger sizes, we used "foolscap" (13 in. x 8 in). Twice the size of foolscap was "brief " (13 in. x 16 in), so-called, not because it was brief in size, but because we as solicitors used it for writing briefs to barristers with instructions for court cases. They are now written on A4. We also used "Octavo" (5in x 8 in) for short letters but gaining in popularity for this purpose was "sixmo". This was a further curious size, half the size of foolscap (8 in x 6.5 in)

"Foolscap" is reputed to have been so called because it was the right size of paper for folding into a fool's or dunce's cap.

British sizes of papers were different from those used in North America and which remain in general use there. American Quarto was and is 8.5 in x 11 in, what is commonly called "letter size", because it is commonly used for business letters. American Foolscap is 8.5 in x 13in, which I believe is now usually called "legal". All this caused endless complications in my office when photocopiers came in and when we had to copy from American to British paper or vice versa.. It still happens, of course, between American Quarto and A4 which are roughty, but only roughly the same size.

No doubt other countries had their own peculiar sizes. In other words Chaos ruled on an international scale until the International paper sizes became widely used.

I remember converting my office to international sizes around 1970. It caused difficulties at first, especially when we had to switch back to make photocopies of existing documents in the old sizes. But the changeover became quite rapid and it was surprising how quickly the old sizes were left behind. Today, the old sizes are rarely seen. except in truly historical papers. Now nearly everything is on A4 and how monotonous the world has become!

All these sizes apply mainly to office papers. There are still peculiarly sized papers around for other uses, such as for private letters. Books refuse to conform, but this has always been so. There have been many sizes of papers for books and there still are, even if, in theory, the international sizes are intended to apply to books as well.

I wonder how long North America will hold out with their traditional office paper sizes. Obviously the old system system is entrenched as a standard over a very large area and it will be difficult to shift it. There is not the same call for standardisation as there was in Europe, where the separate countries had their own irreconcilable systems. The fact remains, however, that in North America paper sizes are out of step with the rest of the world. and is a source of irritating adjustments which have to be made.

Finally, may I remind subscribers to Origami-L of my own contribution dated 9th, January 1997, headed "As Long as the Emperor's Foot" ? In it I pointed out that careful archaeological research has established the length of the ancient Roman foot (as near as it can be calculated) at 296.9 millimetres. And that, (according to the kind of accuacy of which the ancient Romans were capable), is exactly the length of a sheet of A4 paper (297 millimetres). Or did the devisers of the International Paper Standards really start from the fundamental premise that A4 should be one Roman Foot in length?

David Lister.

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