Stationery difference

On various paper sizes in Norway and the US & what it means to be an A4 menneske

Photo: Bromskloss / Wikimedia Commons ISO paper sizes all use the same ratio, for convenience. Shown here with U.S. sizes for comparison.

Photo: Bromskloss / Wikimedia Commons
ISO paper sizes all use the same ratio, for convenience. Shown here with U.S. sizes for comparison.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Stationery—writing paper, envelopes, and related office supplies—in Norway is like stationery in the USA in quality and variety. But the sizes of paper and envelopes differ. In Norway, as in most countries around the world, save in North America, writing paper and envelopes are sized according to an international standard. In North America, the equivalent products are sized according to an American standard. For products in everyday use, the differences are small but noticeable. Everyday A4 letter paper measures 210 x 297 millimeters (8.3 x 11.7 inch) in Norway, slightly narrower and taller than American 8½- x 11-inch letter paper.

The international standard paper sizes relate to each other by numbers that are independent of language or the purpose for which a size was developed. Everyday letter paper is designated A4, a specific size in a sequence in which the area of each size is half that of its predecessor. American paper sizes have no obvious relationship to each other, just names such as “government letter,” “letter,” “foolscap,” and “legal,” the measurements of which are not apparent in their names.

By accident of history, there’s an American connection in the evolution of the international standard. In 1765, the Parliament of Great Britain imposed a tax on the Colonies that required printed materials to be produced on stamped paper made in London. Called the “Stamp Act,” its purpose was to help pay for British troops stationed in America. It was unpopular in America and led to uprisings that triggered its repeal in 1766. Though politically a flop, tax collectors elsewhere apparently found it attractive. In 1798 France enacted a similar law, Loi sur le timbre, literally “The Stamp Act” that introduced taxation of paper. The taxes were by paper sheet area, specified in six sizes ranging from the 0.0221 square meter (34¼ square inch) Effets de commerce (Commercial paper) up to the 0.25 square meter (387 square inch) Grand registre (Large register) size.

At the same time in Germany, mathematician Christoph Lichtenberg had seen an advantage in basing the sizes of rectangular sheets of paper on a width-to-length ratio of one to the square root of two, 1:√2, and in 1786 had described it to scholar Johann Beckmann. There’s no historical record of contact between the German scientists and the French taxmen of the time. But coincidence suggests that there may have been, as five of the six paper sizes specified in the French Stamp Act are in the width-to-length ratio proposed by Lichtenberg.

Other legislation followed more than a century later. In 1922, the German Standards Association (DIN) codified paper sizes in ranges based on Lichtenberg’s 1:√2 formula. In 1975 that standard was incorporated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in standard ISO 216, last revised in 2007.

The principal advantage of the ISO 216 paper size system is its convenience. When a rectangular sheet of paper with its sides in the 1:√2 ratio is folded or cut in half midway on its shorter sides, the new sheet has half the area of the initial one and has the same 1:√2 ratio of its sides. An A4 sheet becomes two A5 sheets, and printers can be set up to print two A5 sized pages on A4 sheets that then are folded to make brochures.

And across Europe, the ISO 216 paper sizes have entered the everyday language, sometimes metaphorically. In Norway, A4 now is used as an adjective; an A4 menneske (A4 person) is an ordinary, mainstream person who conforms to commonplace norms.

Where to go for ISO in the USA:
Office Depot ( and Staples ( sell HammerMill Fore brand multi-function A4 paper and other international-size office products. Empire Imports of Amherst, Mass., offers a selection of ISO standard papers and other office supplies,

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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