You use it for school, to-do lists, diary entries, and meeting notes. The notebook is one of the greatest inventions of all time! It’s an item that’s greatly contributed to where we are in the world today.

Who thought to bind pieces of paper together? Will writing become obsolete in the tech-heavy future? It’s time to dedicate a few words to the history of the notebook!

Someday, you can look back on the many entries in your notebook and realize that your work has enabled you to acquire knowledge and habits that may soon pay off.

– Jack Lander, author for Inventors’ Digest

History of Notebooks Timeline

The notebook is a back-to-school staple, but it was also a must for explorers, inventors, and great thinkers. It’s had many distinct designs over the years.

  • 100 BC

    https://sublimechina.com/5-ancient-chinese-inventions-shaped-world/

    Paper was invented in China. Eventually, it made its way across the Silk Road, bringing literacy, literature, and a love of books and learning all over the world.

  • 1690

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_RittenhouseTown

    A German man named William Rittenhouse opened the first paper mill in North America. You can still visit Rittenhouse in modern day Philadelphia.

  • 1770

    http://www.picbon.us/tag/BiteSizeHistory

    John Tetlow received a patent for a line-drawing machine. This invention created the lines on paper, which was a lifesaver as before the lines had to tediously be drawn by hand.

  • 1804

    https://wmaxwell.com/en/articles/4-uses-notebooks-throughout-ages/

    The oldest known pocket diary is traced back to Lewis & Clark’s journey west. Thomas Jefferson had finalized the Louisiana Purchase and asked the explorers to take diligent notes about the new territories.

  • 1860s

    https://www.wired.com/2016/10/beloved-composition-notebook-gets-slick-redesign/

    The composition notebook made its debut in France and Germany. The marble pattern was inspired by printing techniques found in early China and Japan.

  • 1888

    https://www.blumberg.com/blog/index.php/2017/08/07/what-is-a-legal-pad/

    Thomas W. Holley, a 24-year-old paper mill worker, used leftover scraps to make the first legal pads. His idea took off at the request of a local judge that loved the yellow paper and all the space for his notes.

  • 1906

    https://www.metv.com/stories/1960s-school-supplies-any-child-of-the-60s-will-remember

    William Albrecht opened the Western Tablet Company, or as it was later known “Westab,” in Missouri. The Big Chief notebooks in particular had a big popularity boost in the 60’s.

  • 1924

    http://blog.modernmechanix.com/first-spiral-notebook/

    The spiral notebook is said to have made its debut. Edward Podosek, an English inventor with many patents to his name, is often credited for the invention.

  • 1970s

    https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/scratch-pads/mini-neon-composition-notebook.htm

    Mead, a popular paper company, began mass producing composition notebooks. The marble pattern that had started in the 1860’s was still used as it was iconic and easy to see on shelves.

  • 1978

    http://www.momminitup.com/contest/a-blast-from-the-past-back-to-school-giveaway/

    E. Bryant Crutchfield created the Trapper Keeper. This notebook isn’t as popular today, but it’s often a touchpoint when it comes to feeling 80’s nostalgia.

  • Mid-1980s

    https://www.notebookstories.com/2009/01/22/paper-king-memo-book-late-1970s-or-early-1980s/

    Paper King memo notebooks were super popular. They came in bright, neon colors, sold for about a quarter each, and featured a super thick spiral ring.

  • 1987

    https://www.urbanoutfitters.com/shop/lisa-frank-limited-edition-vintage-spiral-notebook

    Lisa Frank notebooks skyrocketed in popularity thanks to the trendy neon animals printed on the covers. The company made $60 million in sales during its peak in the 90’s.

  • 1997

    https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/journals/moleskine-hard-cover-ruled-largenotebook.htm

    Moleskine notebooks made their official debut in Milan. These trendy journals were rumored to have been invented long before and used by Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, but this was the first time they were traceably produced and sold.

  • 2000s

    https://www.officedepot.com/a/products/604520/Five-Star-Notebook-8-12-x/

    Five-Star notebooks were all the rage in classrooms across the United States. These thick notebooks were a product of Mead and came in a variety of simple colors.

  • 2007

    http://nymag.com/strategist/article/school-and-office-supplies-from-around-the-world.html

    Japanese students recorded their notes in Life Bank Paper Pads. The paper inside is of a super high-quality and made by the Mitsubishi Paper Mill, which has been in operation since 1799.

  • 2009

    https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/My-Readers-Notebook-Printable-Pack-272457

    In the mid-2000’s, Scholastic encouraged teachers to use “My Reader’s Notebook” in their classrooms. This essential school supply also doubled as a binder with separate colored tabs.

  • 2015

    The Rocketbook syncs straight to any file source like Dropbox or Word and transfers your notes over automatically. The best part is it can be erased after your notes are transferred, fusing handwritten and digital notes in one eco-friendly package.

  • 2016

    https://www.wired.com/2016/10/beloved-composition-notebook-gets-slick-redesign/

    You can never go wrong with a classic! The composition notebook got a modern facelift thanks to graphic designer Aron Fay who raised funds for the new “Comp” look on Kickstarter.

  • 2019

    https://www.cellphio.com/deals-and-discounts-you-can-snag-now/

    Newyes is a notebook that came as the result of a Kickstarter campaign. The interactive journal toggles between paper and digital writing, allowing you to search for your notes, play them back via video, and share your writings with others.


When Was Paper Invented?

Paper, or as it was known zhi, was invented around 100 BC in China during the Han Dynasty. It was created by a government official named Cai Lun who used mulberry bark and hemp to create the paper.

The Chinese people loved paper and it was used by everyone – Buddhist monks to record prayers, authors for their new books, and government agencies for tax collection. It changed writing forever and the way society was able to operate and function.

The Silk Road also helped usher paper into new territories in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa. These countries would trade livestock, crops, and other resources for the Chinese paper. Eventually, they also started creating their own versions of paper from scratch, using materials like wood, cloth, and plant fibers.

All of this paper-making resulted in widespread literacy and a love for literature. We started using paper in everything – magazines, books, ads, newspapers, notebooks… the list goes on and on. The world wouldn’t be the same without paper and other writing instruments like pens and pencils.

Today, paper is made from a combination of wood pulp, water, and chemicals like chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid, and sodium salts.

Who Invented the Spiral Notebook?

The exact origins of the first spiral notebooks are unknown, but experts believe they were invented in 1924. Credit goes to Edward Podosek, an English inventor who also has patents for other school supplies like ring binders and recyclable paper.

The convenience of paper being bound together wasn’t lost on other inventors and stationery companies. Shortly after the spiral notebook made its debut, Mead introduced the composition notebook and the Moleskine was created in Italy.

Even today, there are new additions in the notebook’s design that increase its functionality and staying power. It’s an item that will never be replaced, even in this increasingly digital world.

There is one truly unique human trait: people record. They record their deeds, their emotions, their thoughts, and their ideas…they have an impulse to record almost everything that enters their minds and to save it for future generations.

– Mark Kurlansky, author of Paper: Paging Through History

Why Is Notebook Paper Lined?

Paper is lined to give your hand a designated space to write. It’s often referred to as “ruled” paper – each line is like a ruler keeping your sentences reading straight across from left to right.

There are different ways to classify the paper in a notebook. These include:

  • Wide ruled
  • College ruled
  • Narrow ruled

The Different Types of Lined Notebooks

Wide Ruled

Space between the lines:

8.7 millimeters

Recommended for:

Kids learning to write


College Ruled

Space between the lines:

7.1 millimeters

Recommended for:

High school & college students


Narrow Ruled

Space between the lines:

6.35 millimeters

Recommended for:

Professionals

Notebooks are made with all three types of paper, but college ruled is best for clean, easy-to-read notes. You can get this style of notebook for as low as 25 cents each during back-to-school season!

What is the Red or Pink Line on Notebook Paper For?

The red or pink line on a piece of notebook paper is used to denote the margin and separate the writing space from the 3 holes punched on the side. You should start your notes on the right of the margin as it will help keep everything nice and neat.

The red or pink line running down the side is what gives this paper its distinct look. The United States and Canada are the only ones to refer to this type of paper as “loose leaf” when it’s not bound in a notebook.

What Are the Most Famous Notebooks in History?

Many important and influential figures throughout history have carried a notebook. The most famous of which include:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Thomas Edison
  • Charles Darwin
  • Marie Curie
  • Albert Einstein
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Mark Twain
  • Benjamin Franklin
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_van_Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

The legendary composer carried journals that were full of music notes and inspiring quotes. He referred to these as “conversation notebooks” as the famously deaf musician would also use them to communicate with others.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/428756827024589605/?lp=true

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is famous for his love of writing in notebooks while sitting in Parisian cafés. He was once overheard saying: “I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

https://photos.com/featured/marilyn-monroe-writing-at-home-alfred-eisenstaedt.html

Marilyn Monroe

The actress, model, and pinup is famous for being a blonde bombshell with a tragic story. Few people know that she was also an avid writer, keeping a notebook for her acting class notes and poetry.

Thomas Edison

Over the course of his career, Edison is reported to have used over five million pages of notebook paper. He used his notebooks to sketch invention ideas, including the lightbulb and phonograph.

https://www.art.com/gallery/id–b15803/charles-darwin-posters.htm

Charles Darwin

Darwin took fourteen diaries with on his exploration of the Galapagos Islands. They show detailed notes on his research and theories on natural selection, evolution, and survival of the fittest – all of which would eventually become The Origin of the Species.

https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/top10facts/876175/Marie-Curie-facts-Nobel-Prize-winning-scientist-top-ten-things

Marie Curie

Marie Curie is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who discovered polonium and radium. She kept notebooks that are said to be radioactive due to her always having one on hand while working with chemicals. In fact, they’re currently sitting in lead-lined boxes at France’s Bibliotheque National.

https://journalinghabit.com/4-insights-einsteins-journals/

Albert Einstein

The famed genius kept various notebooks for all of his calculations and invention ideas. The most famous of which is the Zurich notebook, which shows all his notes on the theory of relativity.

https://www.leonardodavinci.net/

Leonardo da Vinci

The well-known artist kept notebooks that were written from right to left. He was a lefty who would use paper for everything, from detailed sketches of future paintings to shopping lists to, no kidding, a list of all the clothes he owned.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/101401429083151215/?lp=true

Mark Twain

At the age of 21, Twain was learning how to become a “cub” pilot on a steamboat. His instructor was tired of him forgetting instructions and made him get a pocket notebook. After that, the author started keeping a notebook with him at all times.

https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/benjamin-franklins-4-steps-becoming-great-writer

Benjamin Franklin

Before yoga and meditation were popular, Franklin was working on his own personal improvement. Our founding father kept a notebook that consisted of advice on how to live 13 virtues, including sincerity, justice, and cleanliness.

https://www.amazon.com/reMarkable-Paper-Feel-Glare-Free-Touchscreen-Handwritten/dp/B077NSWLH2

What Are Digital Notebooks?

https://www.amazon.com/reMarkable-Paper-Feel-Glare-Free-Touchscreen-Handwritten/dp/B077NSWLH2

Digital notebooks are interactive tablets that allow you to record notes via a compatible stylus. They’re super popular for classrooms and modern offices.

As the world becomes more and more digital, many people are starting to keep their notes and writings on a laptop or tablet. There are even notepad apps available for your smartphone.

Still, that doesn’t mean those spiral, Moleskine, and composition notebooks are going to end up in the trash. There will always be room in our hearts for old-fashioned pen and paper.

Stats for Success

Nearly 75% of working professionals prefer to take meeting notes with pen and paper.

Mead sells over $100 million in notebooks every year.

About 2.2 million tons of paper were made in the U.S. every year in the 20th century.

The Bottom Line

Whether it’s yellow, college-ruled, leather-bound or digital, a notebook has come in handy and had a personal role in our lives for years. It’s contributed to many great inventions and works of art!

References

Ryan, E. (2014, November 28). Top 10 Historically Important Notebooks. Retrieved July 18, 2019, from
https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-historically-important-notebooks.php

McKay, K., McKay, B. (2010, September 13). The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men. Retrieved July 18, 2019, from
https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-pocket-notebooks-of-20-famous-men/

Cartwright, M. (2017, September 15). Paper in Ancient China. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.ancient.eu/article/1120/paper-in-ancient-china/

Travel China Guide. (2019). Four Great Inventions of Ancient China. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/focus/inventions.htm

PaperOne. (2015, March 12). How is Paper Made? Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmgMdDH14sE

IHS Markit. (2018 March). Specialty Paper Chemicals. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://ihsmarkit.com/products/chemical-specialty-paper-scup.html

Monro, A. (2014). The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention. Penguin Random House: New York, NY.

Blackmore Evans, J. (2016, November 14). Who Designed the Composition Notebook? Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.format.com/magazine/features/design/who-designed-composition-notebook-history

Saner, E. (2012, January 19). The Joy of Moleskine Notebooks. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2012/jun/19/joy-moleskine-notebooks

NeoLab Convergence, Inc. (2015, November 12). New Survey Shows Professionals Prefer Pen and Paper Note Taking for Increased Productivity and Retention. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from
https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-survey-shows-professionals-prefer-pen-and-paper-note-taking-for-increased-productivity-and-retention-300177380.html

Mancini, M. (2016, June 28). Why is Lined Paper Called ‘College Ruled’?. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from mentalfloss.com

McCarthy, E. (2017, September 1). The History of the Trapper Keeper. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from mentalfloss.com

Lander, J. (2017, October 1). Advice for a Young Inventor. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from Inventors’ Digest: Charlotte, NC.

Popova, M. (2019). Marilyn Monroe’s Unpublished Poems: The Complex Private Person Behind the Public Persona. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from
https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/07/27/marilyn-monroe-fragments-poems/

Wrigley, T. (2014, July 30). #WordWeek: The Famous & Their Notebooks. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from
https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/3786/wordweek-the-famous-their-notebooks

D’Estries, M. (2016, August 10). 8 Famous Visionaries Who Kept a Journal. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from
https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/lifestyle/famous-people-who-kept-journal-albert-einstein-marie-curie-mark-twain-charles-darwin

Kickstarter. (2019). Newyes: The Coolest Paperless and Digitized Notebook Set. Retrieved July 24, 2019

US History.org. (2019). William Rittenhouse. Retrieved July 25, 2019, from
https://www.ushistory.org/germantown/people/rittenhouse.htm

Morris, N. (2011). Materials That Matter: Paper. Amicus: Mankato, MN.

Russell, L. (2017, September 26). The History of Loose Leaf Paper. Retrieved July 25, 2019, from
https://bizfluent.com/about-5398882-history-loose-leaf-paper.html

About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over three years of experience in the industry. Her passion for writing has led to a BA in English & Communications from Aurora University and work published for the Advertising Specialty Institute and The Bolingbrook Sun Times.