Why Are Legal Documents on Long Paper?

A close look at a contract legal document that is printed on long papers.

While lots of office-working individuals know that the printer takes 8.5 x 11-inch paper, there’s also often a ream of 8.5 x 14-inch paper lying around. They don’t easily fit in standard binders, are difficult to copy or scan, and can be a real mess if they get stuck inside a printing machine but lawyers still need them. Of course, I’m referring to 8″ x 14″ legal paper.

Why Does Legal Paper Exist & Where Did it Come From?

There are many stories over the historical evolution of legal-sized paper. The answers lie in the history of papermaking. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, early papermakers dipped assorted sizes of wooden framed screens, or molds, into vats of water and pulp.

These “vat men” would then heave them back out by hand. Once they’d left them to dry, they’d end up with two large sheets of paper.

One of the common sizes that came about, according to industry folklore, was a size that was about 44 inches wide,” said Mark Pitts, the association’s executive director of printing-writing, pulp, and tissue. Cut that 44 inches in half, twice, and you end up with paper 11 inches long.

Some of this history is recorded in the Robert C Williams Museum of Papermaking at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta where you can find some of the original papermaking molds.

Early paper molds show evidence of the papermaker’s outstretched grip from where the wood had worn on the sides which were often reinforced with copper.

As for “legal” paper being 3 inches longer, we have specs of history here and there that may be the answer to its origins in the history of papermaking.

According to one legend, during the time of Henry VIII, the paper was printed in 17″ x 22” sheets, this being the largest size of mold that papermakers could carry. These large sheets were known as foolscap with the dimensions of 8.5 x 14 inches, or 216 x 356 mm.

Why Foolscap?

A close look at a foolscap legal paper.

Just like some parts of the world refer to a photocopy as a Xerox because of the popularity of the Xerox brand photocopy machine, this type of paper is oftentimes called “foolscap” after an old, popular brand of paper used a “foolscap,” or joker’s hat, as a watermark logo. So as it evolved, it seems lawyers would simply cut the foolscap in half and use the sheets for official documents.

Some say the standard 8-1/2×11 typing paper is a quarter sheet of what eighteenth and nineteenth-century papermakers would call `writing medium.’ Where printers used a medium sheet of 18×23 inches but stationers preferred a smaller version of medium measuring 17×22 inches.

Eventually, by one way or another around the 1870s, a paper size called a legal cap or legal blank had emerged that was 8-1/2 inches wide and fluctuating in length from 13 to 16 inches long.

Yet there seems to be a never-ending battle of letter vs. legal in the paper world.

Though legal paper offers some more space, it is negated for being “wholly more inconvenient”. This is because it doesn’t always fit neatly in a Briefcase, folder or filing cabinet, and drawers often need to be adjusted to fit its extra length.

Legal paper as we discussed does not get along with printers, photocopiers, and fax machines. You often have to manually set the machine to print a legal document every single time.

So many questions come to mind, some comics question, “If 8.5 x 14 paper is considered ‘legal’ size is everything else illegal? “Will we go to Jail if we use illegal paper?” Will the paper police pick us and will we just be shredded?”

Why do we Still Prefer This Paper?

The answer to this logical question is simple. Just like lawyers use legal pads as they are easier on the eyes than the allegedly bright white paper. So for professionals who have to read and write quite a lot, it makes sense to use something easier on the eyes.

Legal paper is preferred by lawyers and others for anywhere that a contract would be written because the length of the paper is more conducive to incorporate lengthy details of contracts.

This isn’t limited to the use of lawyers in Law firms but also extends to accounting, banking, real estate, and even hospitality. Legal paper is the ideal size for printing spreadsheets, and anyone who has ever tried to print an Excel spreadsheet on letter-size paper knows the pain this can cause.

Additionally, lawyers tend to prefer longer paper than to take lengthy notes that wouldn’t normally fit on a standard size paper. Some modern uses seem to have evolved for these ancient paper sizes and legal-size paper has benefitted the hospitality industry because restaurants are buying plenty of this paper as it is perfect to showcase their menus and affordable enough to replace even daily if the menu changes or needs tweaking.

It is a perfect size for bars to display cocktails in a larger font and more spaced out for its blurry-eyed patrons to read with ease late into the night.

The Committee on The Simplification of Paper Size

A close look at the markers of the paper cutter for the different sizes of paper.

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 that consisted of leaders in the paper industry was formed with a purpose to eliminate waste by standardizing paper sizes. The committee finally ended up adopting two commercial sizes: 17″ x 28″ and 17″ x 22″. And thus Letter and legal sizes were born by simply folding these in half two times.

Many questions remain unanswered, lost in the history of papermaking because the committee too gave no special justification for the sizes that it adopted. Finally, it seems the paper sizes are set by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI. “The ANSI also standardizes bank checks, power tools, and numerous figures across the aircraft and space engineering industry, the civil engineering industry, and even the clothing industry.”

So the standard and legal paper sizes seem to have emerged almost by accident and it seems that legal paper will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future.

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