In great agitation, she took a sheet of foolscap from the desk drawer. Placing it on the blotter, she dipped her sharpened quill into the inkwell and began to write furiously …
Or, something like that. How many characters in how many Regency romances have written or received a missive on a sheet of foolscap? More than I can count. So, just what is foolscap?
By context, it is obvious that foolscap is paper. But what most people do not realize is that the name has nothing to do with the quality of the paper. Foolscap refers to the size of the paper, regardless of its quality. The name is taken from the watermark which was most commonly used for this size of paper. This ancient watermark was in the shape of a court jester wearing his distinctive bell-tipped multi-pointed cockscomb cap. Illustrations of foolscap watermarks can be found at the National Gallery of Australia’s page on Whistler.
Foolscap watermarks were first used on European paper in the mid-fifteenth century. But these comical emblems were not immediately used as a size designation. Paper was all handmade at this time and its size was determined by the size of the mould used by the individual paper maker. These moulds were also handmade, which meant there was no standardization of paper sizes. Nor did every paper mill use the same watermarks, of which there were hundreds of designs available.
There is an apocryphal story that the foolscap watermark design originated in the English Rump Parliament when Oliver Cromwell ordered that it be used to replace the royal arms on the paper used for the journals of Parliament. This is rather far-fetched since the foolscap watermark had already been in use for nearly two hundred years by that time. The paper used for Parliamentary record-keeping was called foolscap in later years for the simple reason that was the paper size which had been chosen. Cromwell had nothing to do with it.
It was not until into the eighteenth century that European paper makers began to standardize paper sizes and use specific watermarks to designate those sizes. They chose watermarks which were well-known and had been in use for many years. In addition to foolscap, other watermarks which denoted sizes were crown, hand, post and pott. About 1795, in England, the foolscap watermark was replaced by the figure of Britannia, even though the paper size continued to be referred to as foolscap.
The size of foolscap paper in the nineteenth century for both printing and writing was 16 1/2 inches by 13 1/4 inches. For writing and drawing, there was also sheet-and-half foolscap, at 25 1/2 inches by 13 1/4 inches and sheet-and-third foolscap, at 22 inches by 13 1/4 inches. All of these variations of foolscap were actually some of the smaller paper sizes available during the Regency. The only paper size smaller than foolscap was pott, at 15 1/2 inches by 12 1/4 inches. The largest sizes of writing paper were double elephant, at 39 1/2 inches by 26 1/2 inches and imperial, at 29 1/2 inches by 21 1/2 inches.
Paper for printing could be sold by the ream, which was 480 sheets for most of the nineteenth century, or more often by the bale, which was ten reams. Writing paper could be sold in flat sheets, by the ream. But during the Regency, it was more commonly sold folded, usually in half, by the quire. A quire at that time was 24 sheets, or one-twentieth of a ream. Drawing paper of any size was typically sold flat, often by the sheet, though it was also available by the quire and the ream.
Foolscap was popular with Regency letter writers presumably because it had a generous surface upon which much could be written before the sheet was folded down to be addressed and sealed. But it was not unmanageably large nor would it be difficult to store in a desk drawer, especially if obtained in the folded format. A pen knife could easily slice through the fold when a smaller sheet was needed. Foolscap, as one of the smaller paper sizes, would also be relatively economical to purchase.
It is quite possible that the perception of foolscap as a poor quality paper may stem from a doggerel poem attributed to Benjamin Franklin. In this poem, Franklin compares different types of men with different types of paper. His stanza on foolscap reads:
Deems this side always right, and that start naught;
He foams with censure; with applause he raves.
A dupe to rumours, and a tool of knaves;
He’ll want no type his weakness to proclaim,
While such a thing as fools-cap has a name.
This poem was first published in the American Museum (Philadelphia, October 1787). It was reprinted in the Works of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, printed by G. G. J. & J. Robinson, London, 1793. The poem was included in the reprints of this work in both 1802, and 1806, also both published in London. Dr. Franklin had always been very popular in England, and there is no doubt his writings were as widely read there as they have been in America. This amusing poem could easily have contributed to the modern-day perception that foolscap was not the best kind of paper. Those who lived during the Regency would have found the poem diverting, but they would never have judged the quality of paper of this size based on Dr. Franklin’s verse.
Foolscap was a traditional paper-size designation in the countries of the former British Empire, until the introduction of international paper sizes in 1975. Today foolscap is the term used to refer to inexpensive yellow writing paper, approximately the size of US legal paper, bound in pads. This modern usage of foolscap may also have contributed to the perception that foolscap is not good quality paper.
Paper was very expensive into the mid-nineteeth century. Therefore, most people were very careful to use only as much as they needed. If, the next time you read a novel set in the Regency, one of the characters writes a letter on "foolscap," you will know they have a lot to say, since they have chosen a rather large sheet of paper. Alternately, if a character receives a brief note, written on a full sheet of foolscap, you will know either the writer was very rich, very wasteful, or the author doesn’t really know what foolscap is. But if the note was written on a half- or quarter-sheet of foolscap, your novel’s author knows exactly how paper was typically used during the Regency.