Why Are Legal Pads Yellow?

Legal pad image via Shutterstock

The legal pad got its start with Thomas Holley in 1888. Holley was 24 and working at a paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Every day, he and his co-workers threw out a lot of scrap pieces, called sortings, left over from cutting paper into the right sized sheets. He knew there had to be a use for them and eventually hit on the idea of cutting the sortings to the same size and binding them into small notepads. Since the paper was essentially trash to the mill, they could sell the pads at low prices.

The first few batches of pads sold so well that Holley quit his job at the mill and started his own company to collect scraps from the local mills and manufacture and sell his pads.

On the Margins

The pads that Holley made probably weren’t yellow, and that isn’t the only color they come in today. The only thing that technically sets the legal pad apart from every other notepad, says the American Pad and Paper Company, is 1.25-inch, left-side “down lines,” or margins. Holley added these lines in the early 1900s at the request of a loyal customer, a judge who wanted a space to write comments on his notes.

Still, when most people think legal pad, they think yellow paper and blue lines. The true origin of the yellow hue is actually a mystery. As far as we know, Holley’s pads were white pads, and dyeing them yellow would have upped his cost and ruined his business plan.

There are a few competing hypotheses about how the pads came to be yellow later on, but they haven’t been verified and no one seems to know when the pads first came out in color. One origin story suggests that yellow was chosen because of the color’s “stimulating effects” on the a person’s intellect and contrasted well against black ink without glare, making text easier to read.

Another possibility is that Holley or his successors eventually decided to dye the paper to hide the fact that the pads were made from scraps of varying age and quality, and yellow was the cheapest or most readily available dye at the time.

Anyone have any pet hypotheses they want to throw into the ring?

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March 29, 2012 - 10:52am
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