Why Is the Basic Marble Notebook Made by So Many Brands Still So Popular?

Students and scribblers have loved them for over a century

As a mother, blogger and wife of a schoolteacher, Crystal Rapinchuk is busy this time of year, when over 50 million kids head back to school (and their parents will drop $75.8 billion in supplies to get them there). In addition to dispensing advice and shopping tips, Rapinchuk also develops recipes for back-to-school treats. Among the most popular is a pan-size Rice Krispies treat slathered with vanilla icing and topped with cookies-and-cream sprinkles. The treat's name? Composition Notebook Cake.

No copyright applies to the books, so a slew of brands make them. Photo: Nick Ferrari; Notebook art: Dianna McDougall and Frank Caruso

Not surprisingly, Rapinchuk is a fan of marble composition notebooks in general. "They're sturdy but flexible, cheap enough that I can design and redesign the covers, then toss when I'm done," she said. "They allow for basic organization as well as creativity."

 

Beirut's work: Stan Narten

Not a bad bit of ad copy, that. And it's definitely an explanation of why the ubiquitous notebooks have been with us for so long—and not just in the backpacks of kids heading back to school. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat sketched in marble composition books, and Italian architect Ettore Sottsass used the covers to make furniture. Marble notebooks also furnish Eddie Vedder with working space for Pearl Jam lyrics.

Since no copyright applies to these books, a slew of brands make them: Roaring Spring, Top Flight, Swinton, Norcom, iScholar—the list goes on. And what differentiates these brands? Nothing, and that's the beauty of it: the marble composition book, a simple, understandable product that costs a few bucks and delivers what it promises. "Teachers, students and parents alike love the product for its slim profile and stitched binding that prevents paper from tearing out," said Amy Botkin, brand manager for ACCO Brands, owner of Mead, which has made marble notebooks for 42 years now. "It remains one of our top sellers."

Cake: Courtesy Crystal Rapinchuk

It's strange that such a universally popular product has such a murky history. The notebooks surfaced in France as early as 1886 and originally featured real marbled-paper covers. In the U.S., the Roaring Spring Blank Book hit the market in 1887 and had popularized a black composition book with a "printed marble board" by 1936, according to graphic designer and blogger Molly Woodward. Since real marbled paper is time-consuming and costly to make, U.S. manufacturers simplified matters by creating the black-and-white flecked pattern that today so many people know and love.

It's not just students, either. Legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut, a Pentagram partner who's created visual branding for clients ranging from United Airlines to Hillary Clinton, has done his work in marble composition books since 1982. "I am now up to notebook No. 112," said Bierut, whose work has been exhibited at MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Composition books are cheap and easy to find. Despite the rise of electronic communication and digital tools, there is something irresistible about a device that doesn't need batteries, never freezes or crashes, and hasn't required an update in decades."

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.