MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Are Legal Pads Yellow?

We have a guy named Thomas Holley to thank for the legal pad. A 24-year-old dude working at a paper mill in Holyoke, MA, in 1888, every day Holley & his co-workers would throw out the “sortings”, which were basically a lot of scrap pieces left over after cutting paper into the correct sized sheets. He knew there had to be some use for them, and he eventually decided he could cut the sortings into a uniform size & bind them into notepads.

And, since the paper was essentially trash in the eyes of the mill, they were able to sell their pads at low prices. The first few batches sold so well that Holley quit his job at the mill & started his own company called “Ampad”, the American Pad & Paper Company, which collected scraps from mills and manufactured & sold them as pads. That company still exists, and still manufactures notepads in a variety of sizes & shapes…and colors.

The pads Holley made weren’t yellow, and yellow’s not the only color they come in today. Really, the only thing that technically sets a legal pad apart from every other notepad is the 1.25-inch, left-side “down lines,” or margins, which Holley added in the early 1900s at the request of a judge who needed space to comment on his own notes.

When most people think legal pad, though, they think of the classic yellow paper & blue lines. The true origin of the yellow hue is actually still a mystery to this day. As far as we know, the original pads were white, as dyeing them would’ve upped the cost & ruined the business plan.

No one seems to know when the pads first came out in color. One theory is that yellow contrasted well against black ink without glare, making text easier to read. Another is that, from a psychological perspective, yellow stimulates mental activity, so writing on yellow notepads boosts creativity.

The most probable possibility is that legal pad makers eventually decided to dye the paper to hide the fact that the pads were made from scraps of various ages & qualities, and yellow was the cheapest or most readily available dye at the time.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].