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Modern gift-wrap tradition has ties to Hallmark

Sarah Hulett Dec 24, 2014
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Maybe you’ve already started wrapping your holiday presents. Or maybe you’re one of those up-past-midnight-on Christmas-Eve types.

Either way, the Christmas wrapping session is a holiday tradition. You put the kids to bed, maybe pour yourself a glass of wine and line up the tape, the scissors and the rolls of printed paper.

But where did this ritual come from?

“Have you read “Little Women?” my friend Nancy asks. “The opening chapter is about the girls deciding that they’re giving up their Christmas gifts to help a poor family, and then they decide to use their allowance money to each buy a present for their mother. Somebody gives her a handkerchief, somebody else gives her perfume, and they don’t really wrap them. They tie a rose onto it I think – or some kind of flower.”

Turns out, wrapping presents – especially in paper printed with holiday scenes – is a relatively new thing.

In the early 20th century, “there was plain paper. So there may have been solid white, solid red, green that a package could have been wrapped in,” says Sharman Roberts, the archivist and historian for Hallmark.

An accident of sorts changed things, she says. 

In 1917, J.C. and Rollie Hall – the guys who would go on to found Hallmark – had a stationary shop in downtown Kansas City. They sold out of the plain wrapping paper, so Rollie went back to the warehouse for more. Instead, he brought back sheets of fancy French paper.

“They were printed in bold colors, lots of patterns, very stylized, and we used them for envelope liners at that time,” Roberts says.

The papers flew off the shelves, and, boom: an industry was born.

By the 1920s Hallmark was printing its own wrapping paper. Today, the gift-wrap industry is worth more than $3 billion.

And for some people, the annual opportunity to wrap stacks of presents is no chore.

It is a privilege.

I made a gift-wrapping date with my friends Laura Weber Davis and Nancy Kaffer. Davis is a producer for Detroit Public Radio, and Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. They – we – are women who make our living writing and talking about Serious Things.

And gift wrapping is serious business.

“I come from a family of gift-wrappers,” Laura says. “My grandfather was a [World War II] engineer and carried his military precision on to wrapping.”

There are rules to wrapping.

No. 1: No gift bags.

“Everyone who’s really obsessed with wrapping presents knows gift bags are a shoddy substitute. They’re the poor man’s gift-wrap package,” Nancy says.

Another rule: No shiny tape.

“I’m also weird about not using more paper than I need to,” Laura says as she demonstrates her measuring and cutting skills, honed during three years she spent working the gift-wrap counter at a department store. Nancy and I are a little jealous.

Nancy tries her hand at a rather elaborate trick, using an X-acto knife to slice a star out of a piece of paper that will go over a contrasting paper, concealing a box of Lego Friends.

We talk about the right balance of papers under the tree, the beauty of a perfectly offset bow, and the fact that the care we put into these packages is worth the time an effort, even when our handiwork is ripped to shreds by some kid.

It’s a little bit like the Tao,” says Nancy. ”It’s the way and the goal.”

 

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