“Brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favourite things.” Oh Maria, I do agree, but you were a little behind the times dear, even for pre-war Salzburg. By then, beautiful patterned wrapping paper would surely have been easy to find?
The custom of ‘wrapping gifts’ was unsurprisingly invented by the same clever people that invented paper: the Chinese. As early as 2nd Century BC, the Chinese court distributed money to government officials in paper envelopes called chih pao. As the knowledge of how to make paper spread along the Silk Road and eventually reached England around 1588 (when the first commercially successful paper mill was set up in Kent by John Spilman), so too did the custom of wrapping.
By Victorian England, wrapping presents was common practice among the upper echelons of society – using elaborately decorated paper, ribbons and lace to conceal gifts under the Christmas tree. In the early 20th century, this thick, unwieldy paper began to give way to tissue paper.
At the same time, the gift wrapping practice began to be echoed by shops, albeit in a more practical way. Customers' purchases were wrapped in sturdy brown paper and string.
But the breakthrough came in the run up to Christmas 1917. Three brothers who owned a stationery store in Kansas ran out of the colourful tissue paper their customers liked to use for Christmas present wrapping. In a moment of inspiration they put the fancy French decorative paper (meant to line envelopes) on their shelves instead, for 10 cents a sheet. They sold out. By 1919, the brothers began producing and selling their own decorative printed paper for the sole purpose of wrapping gifts. The brothers were Joyce, Rollie and William Hall of the soon to be Hallmark empire and so, the gift wrapping industry was born.
The 1930’s saw further changes in wrapping innovations: rolls of adhesive tape came along (to replace string and sealing wax) along with the idea of spools of ribbon and gift tags. The style of wrapping paper changed too, away from ornate Victorian pattern designs (think William Morris wallpaper) towards the more realistic images we associate with Christmas today like snowflakes, candles and Christmas trees. During World War II, gift wrap was not subject to rationing as the government believed Christmas traditions like this helped boost morale and would also encourage people to send gifts to troops abroad. And they were right. During World War II, gift wrap sales increased by 20%.
So Maria, get with the times. Brown paper packages are all very well. But I really think Captain Von Trapp deserved a little bit more, don’t you?
Sources: An Offbeat History of Wrapping Paper, Jude Stewart, December 2013. Wrappers’ Delight: A Brief History of Wrapping Paper, December 2012.