The History of the Legal Pad

It began life as a humble collection of paper scraps — now, the yellow-lined legal pad is a must-have for writers, musicians, and of course lawyers. Madeleine Brand talks about the history of the legal pad with writer Suzanne Snider of Legal Affairs magazine.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

OK. A legal feature interview now on the history and meaning of the yellow legal pad, those sunny oversized notebooks favored by attorneys and others. Richard Nixon loved them when he was in the White House. Suzanne Snider researched the pads for an article in the current issue of the magazine Legal Affairs, and she spoke with our colleague Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

First of all, how old is the legal pad?

Ms. SUZANNE SNIDER (Legal Affairs): Well, according to legend it was first invented around 1888 by Thomas Holley, who was 24 years old at the time and was working at a paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. And he had the brilliant idea to collect all of the sortings, which were sort of the substandard paper scraps from various factories, and to stitch these together to sell cut-rate as pads. And this later evolved into the legal pad in about 1900 when a local judge requested a margin be drawn on the left side, and that was the first legal pad.

BRAND: You cite several examples in your article about the enduring popularity of the legal pad.

Ms. SNIDER: There are many people who are devotees: Jeff Tweedy from the band Wilco; Elmore Leonard. I spoke to many authors. Jonathan Dee is a novelist. He's written four novels on legal pads, using up to 12 pads per novel. And many people, they won't use anything else but a yellow legal pad.

BRAND: Why do you think that is?

Ms. SNIDER: Well, I think there are several things. One, it's just a beautiful object. It's already perfect. It's like the No. 2 pencil. It's a classic. It's cheap and you don't get to use it as a kid. I think it's the grown-up version of the writing paper we use as kids.

BRAND: And it's yellow. Why is it yellow?

Ms. SNIDER: Well, the first pad that Thomas Holley created, American Pad & Paper Company, which is the company he founded, that first pad was white, and there are several theories about why it eventually became yellow. One is that it's possible it was very difficult to bleach the substandard paper and so it was easier to move it in the other direction, to shift the color. But yellow--as it turns out, it's more expensive to make a pad yellow than it is to make a pad white. We don't know exactly when it became yellow.

BRAND: You know, I have a legal pad here, and I have to confess it's not the most convenient item, because first of all, it's too big. The pages aren't, let's say, attached very firmly at the top. It's not--I don't know--as compact as I would like in a pad of paper, so...

Ms. SNIDER: Well, that's interesting, because the legal pad does have foes, aside from all of the loyalists I mentioned. In 1982 Chief Justice Warren Burger banished legal-size documents from federal courts. There was also a movement in Florida called Eliminate Legal Files, or ELF. That was their acronym.

BRAND: (Laughs)

Ms. SNIDER: And they also were extremely opposed to legal-length documents in terms of space efficiency.

BRAND: Can you be a legal pad and just be a humble 8 1/2 inches by 11?

Ms. SNIDER: Funny thing is, you can be a legal pad and be almost anything. There are a million permutations of a legal pad. You can have a binding that's stitched, stapled, gummed, spiral-bound, doubly spiral-bound, single margin, a double margin. You can be white, yellow. You can be junior-sized; that's about 5 by 7.

BRAND: But you have to have that stripe down the left side with the margin.

Ms. SNIDER: You have to have the margin, the down line.

BRAND: Suzanne Snider is a writer for the magazine Legal Affairs. Her article on the history of the yellow legal pad is in the current issue.

Thanks a lot, Suzanne.

Ms. SNIDER: Thank you.

CHADWICK: And that interview by NPR's Madeleine Brand.

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