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The History Of Gift Wrap

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Chances are you're spending some of this weekend wrapping holiday gifts. Decades ago, most gift givers would cover packages with brown shipping paper or newspaper, even fabric. But gift wrap in the United States is now a nearly $3 billion industry in part because of some quick thinking by a Kansas City entrepreneur exactly a century ago. From member station KCUR in Kansas City, Laura Spencer reports.

LAURA SPENCER, BYLINE: The year is 1917. The place - a stationery store in downtown Kansas City. Rollie and Joyce Hall, who would go on to create Hallmark, are selling greeting cards and red, green and white tissue paper for wrapping gifts. One day, they sell out. Hallmark historian Samantha Bradbeer picks up the story from here.

SAMANTHA BRADBEER: Hallmark founder J.C. Hall tasked his older brother Rollie with looking for a substitute, and he came across these envelope liners. They were originally acquired from France, and we'd been using envelope liners for a couple years within our greeting card line for a pop of color.

SPENCER: Bradbeer says Rollie Hall rushed from the manufacturing plant back to the store stacking the envelope liners next to the cash register priced at 10 cents a sheet.

BRADBEER: And they quickly flew off the shelves. Compared to the gift dressing that was available, these were geometric shapes, patterns, floral designs, Christmas motifs. So the American market had not yet seen something like that.

SPENCER: Bradbeer spends a lot of time in Hallmark's archives inside the company's headquarters.

BRADBEER: So this is the vault, what I consider to be the brain of Hallmark.

SPENCER: There are rows of shelving and samples of every product line, including giftwrap. By 1919, the Hall brothers designed and manufactured their own. Hallmark tested ribbons in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ART OF GIFT WRAPPING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bow is the crowning glory of any package.

SPENCER: Hallmark's 1958 promo film "The Art Of Gift Wrapping" featured a gift wrap stylist. In the 1950s and '60s, women like Beverly Blickenstaff traveled the country demonstrating techniques for wrapping presents.

BEVERLY BLICKENSTAFF: That's what I did. It's mostly big bows, put them on boxes sometimes and help people try it. It was rather a new thing.

SPENCER: With Hallmark wrapping paper and bows, of course. Hallmark is one of about five or six big companies in the U.S. making gift wrap, although there are smaller competitors. And psychologists suggest that wrapping gifts can put you in a good mood. So if you're doing that and not using brown shipping paper or fabric, you can thank the Hall brothers. For NPR News, I'm Laura Spencer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.