Why Do We Wrap Gifts? The Fascinating History of Wrapping Paper
The first wrapped gifts actually weren't wrapped in paper!
I look forward to giving Christmas gifts all year. Part of the thrill is finding the perfect gift for the hard-to-shop-for friend or family member, but the part I look forward to most is wrapping all my gifts in festive paper, ribbons, and DIY bows. Each year, I choose a theme and wrap all the gifts in coordinating colors and patterns so the boxes look pretty piled under my tree. Of course, wrapping gifts isn’t limited to the holiday season: I go all out for birthday gifts, wedding presents, and baby shower gifts too.
Wrapping gifts is something my family has always done, but this year I started wondering how the tradition got started. (It is pretty wasteful, after all.) So I did some digging, and found out the first recorded wrapped gifts can be traced as far back as the 1300s. And it turns out, the earliest methods of gift wrapping weren’t done with paper at all.
Why We Wrap Christmas Gifts
The first recorded form of gift wrap is actually fabric: Those who practiced traditional Korean folk religions during the Three Kingdoms Period believed that wrapped items were a symbol of protection and good luck, so giving a gift wrapped in cloth was a way to bestow protection and good fortune upon the recipient. Another early gift wrapping tradition is the Japanese style of furoshiki (wrapping gifts in cloth fabric), which has been around since the Tokugawa period in the 1600s.
Even the wise men wrapped the gifts they brought to baby Jesus, although they enclosed their gold, frankincense, and myrrh in small treasure chests rather than in red plaid paper. This is also likely why we associate gift wrapping with Christmas, even though it’s done for most gift-giving holidays.
The History of Wrapping Paper
So how did we transition to the modern paper gift wrap we use today? It can all be credited to the popularization of Christmas cards: In the mid-1800s, people began sending paper Christmas cards across Europe and America. As printing technology improved, it became easier to print and sell paper cards. Eventually, the custom became so popular that card manufacturers began printing patterned tissue paper to match the designs printed on the cards, and the demand for steadily increased. By the early 1900s, both paper Christmas cards and paper tissue had become wildly popular in the West.
But the invention of the true paper gift wrap can be credited to Hallmark. In 1917, the Hall brothers were running a stationery store in Kansas City, printing cards and tissue paper for the upcoming holiday season. When they ran out of the tissue paper people were using to wrap gifts, they started printing large rolls of the patterned wrapping paper we know and love today. Within two years, Hallmark was making and producing large quantities of gift wrap and selling it all over the country.
Today, Americans spend more than $3 billion on gift wrap each year. Of course, the cost of this practice isn’t just financial: About 4 million pounds of paper gift wrap is thrown away each year because most of it can’t be recycled. So when my stash of holiday gift wrap runs out, I’ll be transitioning to reusable fabric gift wrap instead.
Whether you’re wrapping a birthday gift or planning for the holidays, consider the long history behind the practice of wrapping gifts, and take a few pointers from those who wrapped their gifts in fabric or recycled materials rather than ordering a new roll of paper.