Pulp Magic

DECEMBER 19, 2014

The Accidental Birth of Christmas Wrapping Paper

This time of year we tend to reacquaint ourselves with wrapping paper.  Depending on your mood (and your proximity to Christmas Eve) wrapping gifts for the holidays is either a joy or a chore but the range of paper wrapping options is dazzling.  It’s unbelievable that Etsy, the eCommerce craft store, boasts more than 30,000 designs, many of them handmade.  If you didn’t already realize it, we’re living in the golden age of wrapping paper.

So, how did we get here?  I mean, it’s a strange tradition if you think about it.  Why do you need to conceal a gift from the person you’re giving it to?

The custom began a surprisingly long time ago.  Japanese bathers began to wrap their valuables in distinctive cloth called furoshiki around the 7th century and since then it became something of an art form as seemingly mundane tasks tend to be in Japan.  In North America it became common to protect newly bought items with tissue paper — first plain white and then colored. But the wrapping paper we know really took off in the early 20th century . . . in Kansas City to be exact.

Two brothers, J.C and Rolie Hall, ran out of green and red tissue paper at their Missouri stationery store around Christmastime in 1917 and in desperation they offered customers the only paper they had left: brightly colored envelope linings imported from France. At ten cents a sheet the paper was expensive but it flew off the shelves.  The next year, the Hall brothers stocked more paper designs and again they sold out their entire stock.  The brothers were clearly onto something and they added wrapping paper to their core offerings along with greetings cards.  In time their stationery store grew into the Hallmark Corporation.

Today gift wrap is a multi-billion dollar business yet it’s a surprisingly intimate one.  After all, how many products require you to make a choice based on aesthetics, to gently run your hands over it, to crease and fold it, all to enclose an act of altruism?  Plus, there’s something timeless about a wrapped gift that expresses feelings more authentically than a gift card can.

Maybe that means paper itself is the gift.