I've found quite a bit of information on this intriguing question,
which was "Question of the Month" in the current e-newsletter of
Question: Why do we use 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper as our standard letter
Answer: Standardized paper sizes actually came about as a more-or-less
hit-or-miss situation, rather than a planned event. Here's the whole
story of paper sizes:
The quest for standardized paper sizes began in the 14th century in
Bologna, Italy. In the year 1398, a marble tablet inscribed with the
outlines of four sizes of paper [small, medium, large, and
extra-large] was placed in a public place to serve as a guide for the
sizes of paper manufactured in that region of Italy. This appears to
be the first time that paper sizes were regulated and standardized.
Centuries later, in 1786, physics professor Georg Christoph
Lichtenberg of Germany noted the advantages of paper sizes having a
height-to-width ratio of the square root of two (1:1.4142). The
Lichtenberg Ratio has the advantage of preserving the aspect ratio
when cutting a page in two. This ratio is also the basis for the
metric-based ISO paper size system used by most of the industrialized
A few years later, in 1794, the French government issued a law that
specified paper size formats that correspond exactly to several of the
modern ISO paper sizes. Today the United States and Canada are the
only modern countries in which the ISO standard paper sizes are not
The historic origins of the U.S. letter size format (8½ x 11" / 216 x
279mm) are relatively obscure. There were attempts in 1921 by the
Permanent Conference on Printing, and also by the U.S. Secretary of
Commerce, former President Hoover, to standardize paper sizes to an
entirely different 8 x 10½" format. This size was established as the
standard for U.S. Government letterheads, and continued until the
Reagan administration declared in 1980 that the official paper format
for the U.S. government would be the 8½ x 11" size.
At the same time that the Hoover standard of 8 x 10½" paper was
adopted, another committee known as the Committee on the
Simplification of Paper Sizes recommended six completely different
paper sizes. These sizes appear to have been selected merely because
of their being traditional. What later became our familiar letter size
format is simply one of these basic sizes (17 x 22") halved. Our legal
size paper (8½ x 14" / 17 x 28") is also one of the papers specified
by the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes.
As far as can be determined, the 8½ x 11" letter size began to be used
in the United States during or shortly after the First World War.
There was apparently no effort made to prove that this was the optimal
size for commercial letterhead. The purpose simply appeared to be to
reduce the haphazard and chaotic variety of paper stocks and
inventories to the most commonly used sizes.
Paper University: E-newsletter, September/October 2002
Syndicated columnist Cecil Adams, billed as "The World's Smartest
Human Being," offers a good discussion of the history of paper-sizing,
found in the archives of The Straight Dope online:
The Straight Dope: How did 8-1/2x11 and 8-1/2x14 become the standard
My Google search strategy:
"why is" + "standard paper" + "size" + "8 1/2 x 11"
I also searched the archives of StraightDope.com, using the keyword
combination "8 1/2 x 11."
Thanks for asking an interesting question. If anything in my answer is
not clear, or if a link does not function, please request