Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why do they call it 20-lb paper?”

papers scattered across a bedroom floor. Some are propped up next to stuffed animals as if in a museum exhibit.

We are never ever going to find the cricket in all of that. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Seven-Year-Old is a voracious consumer of paper.

Paper is the essential component of the Winnie-the-Pooh museum she is constructing in her bedroom.

Right now, there are at least 8 brightly colored paper airplanes and several dozen paper-based art projects scattered around my office. Doubtless even more paper is being consumed down in the family cave, where The Seven-Year-Old is enjoying her daily dose of the children’s show, Wild Kratts.

When tearing open yet another package of computer paper to fuel her artistic drive, The Seven-Year-Old happened to read the label.

The Seven-Year-Old, holding the ream of paper up proudly over her head: “Mommyo, look how strong I am! I can lift 20 pounds (lbs) of paper!”

It was adorable. And completely incorrect. That ream of paper weighed more like 5 lbs.  Well, 4.8 lbs to be exact.

We know this because we weighed it using the time-honored method of weighing a conveniently located seven-year-old child on the scale twice — once by herself, and once holding the paper. The difference between the two numbers came to 4.8 lbs.

The Seven-Year-Old, reasonably: “But if it only weighs 4.8 lbs, why do they call it 20 lb paper? They should call it 4.8 lb paper.”

Why do they call it 20-lb paper?

According to How Stuff Works, paper is named according to how much 500 standard-size sheets of it weigh. 500 standard-size sheets of the printer paper that The Seven-Year-Old prefers for museum labels and paper airplanes weigh 20 lbs, hence the name 20 lb paper. (500 standard-size sheets of 24 lb paper would weigh 24 lbs and so on.)

The Seven-Year-Old, reading the label on her ream of paper: “But this ream has 500 sheets in it, Mommyo, and it still only weighs 4.8 lbs.”

Odd, isn’t it? Were we cheated?

Well, maybe. But probably not.

Why your package of 20-lb paper only weighs 5 pounds (more or less)

It all depends on how big you think a standard size sheet of paper is. When we layfolk hear the term standard size paper, we think about 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, like that ream of printer paper The Seven-Year-Old was holding. But when paper manufacturers refer to standard size paper, they mean the larger 17″ x 22″ sheets of paper that they then cut into four pieces to create the familiar 8.5″ by 11″ size.

A 500-sheet ream of 17″ x 22″ sheets of printer paper does weigh 20 lbs. But the 8.5″ x 11″ sheets we use are only one quarter of the size of the original sheet. As a result, the smaller 500-sheet reams we buy in the stores to feed our printers and art-making machines weigh only 5 lbs (more or less).

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3 Responses to ““Why do they call it 20-lb paper?””

  1. bobraxton

    fascinating. When I was that age, “shave and a haircut two bits” – a dollar coin (or Real, or whatever “currency”) cut in half, the half cut in half (quarters), the quarter cut in half (eighths) – two eights (bits) equivalent to a quarter (cut) – shave and a haircut – a quarter (no more).
    I turned seven in 1951.


    • Shala Howell

      The Seven-Year-Old and I went to the Viking exhibit at the Field Museum last week. They had a coin from many centuries ago — Henry the VI, I think. Anyway, it was really only a quarter of a coin, because the silver had been cut into four pieces for spending. Also the coin was much skinnier than ours today, which made the cutting possible. The Seven-Year-Old was very surprised to learn that people had once upon a time actually cut their money into quarters and bits, etc. before they spent it.



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