They’re used every day and not just by those in the legal profession. The legal pad has existed for more than 100 years and is still popular despite controversy about recycling and attempts to be usurped by spiral notebooks and digital notepads. But why are legal pads yellow? And why are they even called legal pads?
It’s rumored that legal pads are yellow so that lawyers’ handwritten notes can be more easily detected in a pile of paperwork. Another theory is that yellow stimulates creativity, or that it’s easier to read black ink on yellow paper. The most plausible theory is that the current yellow legal pad stems from the origins of the notepad itself, which was compiled from discarded papers at different ages and stages of yellowing.
How Did the Legal Pad Start?
In 1888, a young man named Thomas Holly was working in a papermill in Massachusetts. At the end of each day he and his colleagues had to pick up all of the paper scraps and throw them away. Growing tired of doing this, the enterprising fellow decided to bind these scraps together and trim the edges to conformity. He resold these newly created notepads to the general public.
The idea was so successful he soon quit his job to start a full-time company called American Pad and Paper Company which eventually became Ampad. Holly never filed a patent for his invention and the notepad was eventually duplicated by other companies, and so the true story of why notepads are yellow was never captured. Today Ampad is owned by Tops which manages multiple office supply brands.
Why Are They Called Legal Pads?
Lawyers were the largest customers of Holly’s notepads, not surprising considering that they utilized more paper than any other profession in the late 18th century. The individual scrap papers that Holly collected were made of good quality paper which lawyers needed because they were required to retain their papers for many years. It also gave them the freedom to use a variety of writing tools.
In 1900 a judge requested that Holly add a red line along the left side of the paper so that he could insert additional comments into his notes. This distinguishable vertical line, always 1.25” from the edge, is what makes a legal pad a legal pad. Regardless of color, a legal pad officially earns that designation if it has that vertical line on the left. Anything else is just a notepad.
There’s an assumption that a legal pad also needs to be 8.5” x 14”, the same size as legal paper, in order to achieve a legal pad designation. But that’s not the case. Legal pads can be any size or dimension provided they include that vertical red line 1.25” from the side.
The origin of legal-sized paper is a bit murky. One possibility is the use of 17”x22” molds to print paper in the time that Henry VIII was King of England. This was the largest size that could easily be carried. These sheets were known as foolscap, which lawyers cut in half for their official documents resulting in a 17”x11” sheet of paper. This was eventually reduced to the smaller legal-sized paper we use today.
Another possibility is that as the standard size of paper was being set at 8.5” x 11” attorneys would request a longer version be cut for their purposes. This longer paper allowed them to complete longer contracts. The standard size of 8.5”x11” was needed as printing became mechanized. Some in the industry have joked that lawyers need the additional space to write what most people can communicate in three fewer inches.
Could Other Theories About the Yellow Legal Pad Be True?
Certainly, the shade of a yellow notepad stands out from a sea of white, and it’s possible that the color was selected for just that purpose. A subjective study out of Switzerland in 2005 indicates that yellow is one of the most stimulating colors. It was ranked behind red as the number one choice. Considering it would be far more difficult to read something written on a red piece of paper, it’s possible that yellow was chosen to stimulate thought.
Multiple studies have attempted to prove that reading on colored paper is more effective, but the findings have been inconsistent and are usually conducted with those who have existing reading challenges. A professor of psychology at Brooklyn College was quoted as stating that the contrast of ink is more important than the paper color, although he concedes that yellow might be more readable. “If the light is too intense, the paper can be glaring, and yellow cuts down the glare,” said Israel Abramov in an interview with Suzanne Snider that appeared in Legal Affairs in 2005.
Whether the original legal pads were dyed yellow is also up for debate. Yellow paper is 10 to 20% more expensive than white paper, so it’s questionable that Holly would have dyed his papers yellow when he was starting a new business. Yet theories persist that he was coloring the paper to make each page consistent and more marketable, and since he was receiving the paper basically for free it’s possible that he would have invested some funds to make it visually more appealing. Because it would have been less expensive to darken the pages than to bleach them, the idea that he made the pages a consistent shade of yellow was born.
Because Holly never patented or tracked the logic behind his invention, the reason behind the color remains a mystery.
How Did Recycling Damage the Reputation of the Yellow Notepad?
In the late 1980s corporations were pushed to start recycling paper waste. At the time many recycling companies were only accepting white paper, which was more profitable. Law firms and other businesses faced a quandary: not recycle or steer away from the yellow legal pad. The Los Angeles City Government decided to scrap yellow notepads completely in order to make $50 to $80 per ton by recycling only white paper. The American Paper Institute reported a drop in colored paper purchases from 16% in 1974 to 10% in 1988. Since then recycling has evolved to accept paper of almost any color, and the recycling rate has doubled since 1990.
Along with the increase in recycling the use of paper has continued to decline over the past decade. According to the IBIS World Paper Mills in the U.S. Report, revenue from American paper mills continues to drop as use of digital communication continues to increase and paper manufacturing shifts overseas.
Once upon a time Ampad was the country’s leading manufacturer of legal notepads. In their heyday yellow legal pads outpaced sales of white legal pads up to 3 to 1. Since then Ampad has been through multiple bankruptcies and takeovers by other manufacturers and they’re not alone. One thing that can keep the paper industry alive is the increased use of packaging, although that doesn’t help the legal pad in the long run.
How Has the Legal Pad Evolved Through the Years?
Since its inception in Massachusetts in 1888, Ampad’s legal pads have evolved from a simple pad with a stitched top to offering varieties that are stapled, gummed or spiral bound in multiple ways. Color options range from yellow to white to lavender to green. They’re available in dozens of sizes and quantities. The options are seemingly endless. A simple search on the Staples.com site yields 287 results, all of which are different permutations of that first pad 132 years ago.
Moving into the future, Rocketbook is set to launch a digital notebook that they claim is a replacement to a legal pad. While the innovation is fascinating, the new design doesn’t include the familiar red line along the left side. Homestec notebooks have the margin for those who can’t live without it. Neither is available in yellow however.
Despite the haters, including Chief Justice Warren Burger who banned legal-sized documents in 1982, there are plenty of people who can’t imagine life without the legal pad. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and novelists Johnathan Dee and Pat Conroy all attribute the success of their work to using a legal pad.
There may be another psychological logic behind the use of yellow notepads. Research has shown that seeing the color yellow makes people happy. Logically that makes sense. The sun is yellow; smiley faces are yellow. Perhaps the use of a yellow notepad subliminally helped shape the success of Seinfeld, Walton, Dee and Conroy. It’s a reason that Pantone has chosen Illumination, a bright shade of yellow, as one of its two 2021 Colors of the Year, to convey a sense of positivity.
With recycling now commonplace across the country and more people needing some optimism and inspiration in their lives, the yellow legal pad just might see a resurgence in the near future.
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Heather is a journalist and freelance writer with a passion for history, travel and home restoration. Her work has appeared in American Farmhouse Style Magazine, RoadTripsforFamilies.com, Current in Zionsville and Indy’s Child. You can read more of her material at TheQuillHeather.net.