Ed Artifact

The composition notebook: A centuries-old design and its modern work


Photo illustration of a composition notebook courtesy of Roaring Spring Paper Products.

(Photo illustration courtesy Roaring Spring Paper Products)

The composition notebook—ubiquitous, anonymous, cheap—hides a history that goes back centuries before it and its speckled black and white cover ascended to the school supply pantheon.

While modern purveyors sell a profusion of redesigns with recycled paper, dot grid pages and covers with constellations and metallic swirls, Pennsylvania’s Roaring Spring Paper Products believes that its $2 notebook was among the first in the U.S. to debut in the 1890s.

“They were durable. They were cheap. No frills, no fuss, but they get the job done ... You can fold it in half and stick it in your back pocket … You can’t rip a page out without it being noticeable … I think the composition is just sort of a go-to in education for those reasons,” said Kristen Allen, marketing director for the 133-year-old company, which sells about 2 million a year.

The classic black-and-white cover design emerged in 19th century France and Germany. The mass-produced pattern imitated the elegant, ancient marbling technique of dipping paper into a dye bath rippling with color, said New York City designer Aron Fay.

His curiosity about the utilitarian book that his colleagues used to draft their work led him to study its evolution in rare book libraries, which he chronicled online.

Fay then created his own fancy tribute that lay flat when opened, had thick paper and Italian cloth binding. In 2016, it took him 30 days to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter and print thousands in Europe. “It still shocks me to this day,” said Fay, principal and creative director of FAY Design.

His $20 notebooks, with a speckle pattern he drew, sold out in six months. His Comp.design now features wrapping paper and totes.

The best part of his foray? Learning the history that started in about 1820 and, eventually, made it affordable for anyone to own a blank book ready to be filled with anything.

“It democratized writing,” Fay said. “Start page one, plow through and write to the end of the book. You have this work. For, me, personally, it’s important to have this record to go back to … Historically, each of the component pieces are not necessarily of the highest quality. They hold together in a miraculous way.”