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History of Gift Wrap: So Many Packages, So Little Time
by Marjorie Dorfman

When did man and woman begin wrapping their gifts? However did they manage before the invention of tables, scissors and scotch tape? These and other questions will be "covered" as prettily as possible. Read on, even if you prefer your gifts plain and your coffee strong (or something like that).

People have been wrapping gifts since paper was invented in China in 105 AD. It was considered a sacred art and quite a secret for centuries, and no one knows who leaked the news, but by 800 AD, the Egyptians knew all about it. Someone there couldn’t keep a secret either because soon it spread to Europe where the first paper mill was started in 1085.

Wallpaper, the European precursor of gift-wrap, made its first appearance in England in 1509. It was only used briefly, however, because it cracked and tore too easily when it was folded, making wrapping a gift a rather dysfunctional experience. During the Victorian period, only the wealthier classes exchanged gifts and wrapping of them was very elaborate and expensive and topped with ribbons and laces. The subjects on the paper varied from snowy landscapes, to fireplaces to angels, holly boughs and St. Nicholas himself.

Victorian gift-wrap was an art form that developed from designing Christmas cards. Gift papers were intricately printed and adorned with lace and ribbon. Elaborate cutout illustrations of Father Christmas and other seasonal decorations ornamented boxes and bags and often the papers matched cards in design, an association that has carried through to this day. As the printing presses developed, endless sheets of wrapping paper could be printed with consistent quality. In 1890, the flexography process, which was patented in England, combined fluid inks with rubber plates wrapped around the print cylinder, making a process that was ideally suited to create stiff papers that were durable enough for wrapping. By the early twentieth century, gifts were usually wrapped in plain brown paper or tissue. Most historians agree that America’s gift wrap industry began in the early twentieth century in a store in downtown Kansas City, Missouri run by Hallmark founder, Joyce C. Hall.

The launch of the greeting card giant’s gift-wrap line came about almost by accident. During the holiday season of 1917, the store had sold off its line of holiday red, white, green and holly-patterned tissue, which was sold to customers to wrap their packages. Some decorative French envelope lining papers were brought from the manufacturing plant and placed on a top of a showcase. They sold quickly at 0.10 per sheet. The following year, the sheets were offered at 3 for $0.25 cents and sold out again. Said J.C. Hall in his autobiography, "When You Care Enough."

"I never saw anything accepted so quickly," J.C. Hall said in his autobiography. "We didn’t realize it then, but for all practical purposes, an entire new industry had been born. In fact, the decorative gift-wrapping business was born the day Rollie (Hall’s brother) placed the French envelope linings on top of our showcase. Soon gift-wrapping paper became the first product we made that was a departure from greeting cards."

While Hallmark remains the industry sales leader in wrapping paper, technically, they were not the first to manufacture it. That honor goes to the Hy-Sil Manufacturing Company, also known as The Gift Wrap Company, which opened their doors in 1903, more than a decade before the Hall brothers and their French lining papers took off. The original founders of the company were Eli Hyman and Morris Silverman; hence the name Hy-Sil.

Their original products were leather postcards, which were very popular at the time, and soon they added looms to weave ribbon. Some ten years later, they began to manufacture gift-wrap. In 1935, they became the first American company to begin vacuum metalizing and the very first metalizing chamber in the country was constructed at their plant in Revere, Massachusetts. During World War II, manufacture was geared to war-related goods and the company used its looms to make khaki webbing for parachute harnesses and chemical warfare hoods from metalized cellophane. During the Apollo Space Missions, this company manufactured metalized polyester that was used as heat-resistant material in spacesuits.

In 1989, Hy-Sil was purchased by the leading gift-wrap manufacturer in the United Kingdom, International Greetings PLC. As the company expanded, it built a new manufacturing plant in Midway, Georgia in 1996. Today, the Gift Wrap Company’s finished products are sold to thousands of retail outlets all over the country and they maintain offices in Atlanta, Georgia, and a design studio in Northboro, Massachusetts.

The process of wrapping paper begins with paper that is produced from wood pulp. This comes from special mills and is made from trees that are classified as softwoods. In the case of gift-wrap, the pulp is bleached but other papers like the material called kraft wrapping (familiar as grocery store bags) is made of unbleached pulp. Ink is made from natural and synthetic dyes. Both the papermaking and ink-making industries greatly emphasize protecting the environment by using recyclable papers and bleach and pigments that are easily recycled.

We all know that wrapping a holiday gift can be as much fun as purchasing and giving it. From now on, each time you place some gift wrap under a holiday present remember its noble past and give a little salute out of respect.

You never know.

Happy holidays.



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