Saturday, June 4, 2011

Size Matters

I've been puttering around with some PDF scans of vintage document and noticed something odd. The margins. All of the pages were surrounded by what looked to be a quarter inch of empty space, as though they were shrunk down after they were scanned.

It turns out I was misinterpreting what I was seeing. The documents weren't shrunk, but were universally smaller than the scanning platen sized for 8.5" by 11" "Letter" sized paper. That's because back in 1921 two different Federal committees came up with two different paper standards .

Not until World War I or shortly after was a standard paper size agreed to in the United States. Interestingly enough, within six months of each other, two different paper sizes were set as the standard; one for the government and one for the rest of us.

1. In 1921, the first director of the Bureau of the Budget established an interagency advisory group with the President's approval called the Permanent Conference on Printing which established the 8" x 10½" as the general U.S. government letterhead standard. This extended an earlier establishment made by the former President Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce at the time, who established the 8" x 10½" as the standard letterhead size for his department.

2. Now, during the same year, a Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes consisting of printing industry representatives was appointed to work with the Bureau of Standards as part of Hoover's program for the Elimination of Waste in Industry. This group came up with basic sizes for all types of printing and writing papers. The size for "letter" was a 17" x 22" sheet while the "legal" size was 17" x 28" sheet. The later known U.S. letter format was these sizes halved (8 ½" x 11" and 8 ½" by 14").

I vaguely recall coming across the idea of a minuscule size difference between "government" paper and regular paper before, but I wrote it off as an urban legend or waggish commentary on government efficiency. Personally, I'm not going to get too bent out of shape that my few reproductions of Federal paper are slightly oversized. It's a legitimate concern for anyone worried about the absolute authenticity of prop documents in the classic era. For casual game use the hassle of resizing document templates and hand trimming paper to size is too much effort for too little reward.


Algedonic said...

The aggravation of different paper size/style is very real. Just read producer notes off of the Battlestar Galactica series; and all they had to do was trim corners off of everything.

J. D. Davidsen said...

And then there is us wacky Europeans and our A4 standard.

CoastConFan said...

You are quite correct. The 8 X 10 sheets were commonly used up through the 1960s and legal size continued well after that in government correspondence and even in the commercial world. It wasn’t until the mid 70s that the undersized paper stopped being used completely from old stocks. BTW there were special sized envelopes used for those odd sized documents as well.

I suggest you look into on paper fasteners of the era. Staples, paperclips and straight pins were used, but of different dimensions and configurations than are standard now. Straight pins were pretty common paper fasteners before 1920 and continued after. Nearly all of them could rust and leave a mark on the paper after a few decades.

A third subtle thing about old documents is the hole created by the spike paper holder on a clerk’s desk. They were just a long thin nail with a metal base to hold odd sized documents, receipts, scripts, and tickets. This is easy to simulate and great for the advanced prop maker as a detail.

Propnomicon said...

@ Algedonic

I've always been curious if they ever came up with a backstory for why the BG cultures used paper of that shape.

@ J.D. Davidsen

It might be wacky, but I love the ability of Euro copiers to handily do multipage copies between A3/A4. It's a high-efficiency feature one rarely finds in US copy machines.

@ CoastConFan

One of the reasons I love old catalogs is the insight they provide into office supplies. I'm all for ignoring authenticity when it provides little gain for extra expense and trouble, but some small touches can provide significant benefits. Things like using typewriter bond paper and period fasteners are relatively cheap ways to increase immersiveness.

Brent said...

My grandmother has a huge hoard of old paper dating back to the 1910's. She has so much of it that she uses it for normal correspondence and scratch paper to this day. I never thought that there would probably be an interest to people for making period-specific paper props – now I will have to take a closer look at the selection.