Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Wrapping Paper

image of some wrapped gifts

The appearance of festive gift wrap in stores is one of the first signs that the Christmas season is here. But wrapping Christmas gifts is a relatively new custom.

Tissue paper “gift dressings” had been around for a while. The captain of that industry was Dennison Manufacturing of Framingham, MA.

image of museum exhibit of Dennison Manufacturing, at the Framingham History Center
A Dennison exhibit at the Framingham History Center

Dennison operated in Framingham for nearly a century. The company was acquired by Avery in the 1990s.

image of museum exhibit of Dennison Manufacturing at Framingham History Center
A close up from the exhibit

In this episode we hear from Pat Lavin, author of Welcome to Dennison Manufacturing Co.

image of Welcome to Dennison Manufacturing
Cover image of Welcome to Dennison Manufacturing

Fun links

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:07
I’ve always loved those stories about famous products that were invented by accident. Maybe you’ve heard the one about the naval engineer who was working with tension springs. And when he dropped one on the floor, he noticed that it almost looked like it was crawling. And the next thing you know, the slinky is one of the top selling toys on the market. Or how about the company that was trying to make a super strong adhesive, but when they failed, they sold the result anyway, as post it notes. Well, here’s one that maybe you haven’t heard. It’s about two brothers who ran a stationery store in Kansas City, the year was 1917. And like most retailers at the time, they offered customers plain tissue paper to use as wrapping paper. Only back then it was referred to as gift dressings, which is kind of awesome and really needs to make a comeback. But one day during the Christmas season, they ran out of gift dressings. So Raleigh, one of the brothers went back to the warehouse to look for something anything they could use instead. He found a stack of fancy brightly colored paper sheets, they planned on using them as the inner linings of their fancy envelopes. So we brought some of it back to the store, priced the sheets at 10 cents a pop and the stuff just flew off the shelves, they couldn’t keep up with demand. And just like that, a whole new industry was born. The wrapping paper we know and love today, with its bright colors and printed patterns can trace its beginnings back to that one day. That one decision, made in 1917 by a man named Raleigh Hall, who along with his brother JC ran a company that’s still around today. Maybe you’ve heard of it, Hallmark. But what’s maybe even more interesting is the fact that when all of this happened, the idea of wrapping gifts for Christmas was only about 50 years old. It seems unimaginable but there was ever a time when gifts wouldn’t be wrapped. Think of the anticipation created by the concealment of gift wrap, or the beauty of a decoratively wrapped gift, the excitement of unwrapping to reveal the surprise of what’s inside. All of that is relatively new. And there’s an interesting story behind it. One that has to do with the influence of media, the rise of industrialization, and the birth of consumer culture. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past. Let’s go back to some time a little before 1850. Back then, Christmas gifts were almost exclusively for children, and they’re almost never wrapped. They were mainly small items left in a stocking hung by the chimney. But Around this time, a new trend was starting to take hold in America, one that was first seen among German settlers in Pennsylvania, they would place a tree inside their house at Christmas time and decorate it. This was still a new idea to most Americans, and a popular women’s magazine of that time published an illustration in 1850 that showed a Christmas tree with gifts hanging from it along with other ornaments. So gifts moved from the stocking to the tree. Some of them were just stuffed in between the branches, while others like candy and nuts would be hung in small decorative containers. By the way, you know those animal crackers that come in a little box with a string on them. Those were created by Nabisco originally as a Christmas promotion, and the string was there so that you could hang them on the tree. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1870s that adults began giving each other gifts on a routine basis. This was a time of increasing industrialization, where more goods were being produced in large factories and shipped long distances. They needed a way to neatly store them in warehouses and on store shelves, and also to protect the merchandise. So an outgrowth industry for packaging emerged. And interestingly, one of the side effects of this growing box industry was a whole new class of goods that required a box things like jigsaw puzzles in board games. So now we’re up to around the 1890s and store bought gifts were becoming the norm, and most of them were too big to go on the tree. In fact, in 1896 issue of good housekeeping advised putting gifts under the tree. Around this time wrapping gifts for adults and children alike really took hold. Wrapped boxes were covered in tissue paper, usually plain white, but Sears and other stores sold colored tissue paper starting in around 1897.

Now we’re still 20 years away from when the hall brothers would offer their brightly colored luxury paper as gift wrap. But in the decades leading up wrapping gifts in tissue had become the norm, not to mention a booming business. And the captain of that industry was the Dennison manufacturing company. You know those little white adhesive rings, the ones you put around holes punch In paper to keep it from tearing out of a three ring binder. Well, Dennison invented those back in the Civil War days as a way to keep shipping tags from falling off of packages. They would go on to produce all kinds of paper products including adhesive Christmas seals and plain white tissue gift dressings.

Pat Lavin 5:16
What people did was they would take Denison’s Christmas seals use the tissue paper and then they put the seals all over the packages and make their own designs.

Brian Earl 5:25
Pat Lavin is the author of Welcome to Dennison manufacturing company, a history of that company. And she’s also a volunteer at the Framingham History Center in Framingham, Massachusetts. That’s where Denison’s factory operated for almost a century. In 1908. Dennison first advertised tissue paper with a simple Holly design printed on it.

Pat Lavin 5:44
And interesting enough for 15 to 20 years, people were perfectly happy. With this one Holly design between 1910 and 1925. They came up with all these other patterns, because people then wanted the various designs, but it took a long time for them to really ask for those designs.

Brian Earl 6:02
Maybe the real genius of Denison was their flair for marketing. They’d offer live workshops on how to wrap gifts in their stores, and also in department stores where their products were sold. This was something no one else was doing at the time. They even had their own radio show dedicated to the subject. Whatever Dennison and others did to turn people on to wrapping paper, it obviously worked. Nowadays we spend over $2 billion a year on the stuff. In one company alone, American Greetings sold more than 1.7 billion linear feet of wrapping paper in a single year. That’s enough to circle the planet 12 times there was even a series of psychological experiments published in the 90s that found that we like gifts better when they’re wrapped. Not only that, but the nicer the wrapping, the more we like the gift. Apparently, wrapping paper is a visual cue associated with happy events in our lives. And it triggers happy emotions, like childhood memories from Christmas past. Speaking of wrapping paper, one of my favorite modern Christmas songs is Christmas wrapping by the waitresses. It came out in 1981. And it has those famous lyrics. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, but I think I’ll skip this one this year. Well, that’s kind of what happened to our friend Cory, you know, Ohio. He skipped Christmas last year, albeit not intentionally. Let’s hear him tell the story.

Cory Constable 7:30
Christmas of 2015 was a very rough time in my life. This was to be my first Christmas alone. Everyone else had plans. It would just be me by myself enjoying my freedom and eating whatever my heart desired. But the dynamic of my holiday changed on December 23. It started with the aches, the feeling that takes over your joints as you begin to develop a fever. my sinuses were clogged, my throat was sore and my internal temperature had reached what felt like a boiling point. So December 24 saw me in bed all day, only getting up to take my dog out for a walk. I was awake every 10 minutes the night of Christmas Eve tossing and turning freezing and burning up at the same time. At 4am. On Christmas morning, the combination of fever and ache finally pushed me past my breaking point. I laid in bed sobbing This was hell. I took what I can only assume was a near lethal dose of NyQuil and finally got some sleep. I remained unconscious for the entirety of Christmas Day, and only got around to responding to the merry christmas text messages at around five o’clock that evening. My favorite president arrived on the 26th when the fever broke at 3am. I’m not sure if my mind can recover from the toll that Christmas of 2015 took on it. But I’m certainly willing to try. After all, it can only go up from here. So here’s the hoping that this year is more cheery than the last.

Brian Earl 8:59
Hey, let’s all send Cory our warmest wishes for a very Merry Christmas this season. I have a feeling things are going to take a turn for the better because 2016 has already been pretty good to Cory. He has his own podcast called omitted which is become one of my new favorites. And I have a feeling it’ll become one of yours too. If you like history, and I assume you do if you’re listening to this show, then really you should check out omitted. What Corey does is takes a famous historical topic, and then goes on a deep dive into the little stories that you hardly ever hear. This season. He’s doing a whole series on the Titanic and it’s just fantastic. Check him out on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. And I’ll also have a link on my site Christmas pass podcast.com Hey, and if you want to share a memory, it’s super easy. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to me at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. Try to keep it to about a minute and be sure to say your name and where you’re from. And if you don’t want to record your own voice, that’s okay. You can just write me an email and maybe I’ll get a chance to read it myself. The show. Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks very much to Cory in Ohio and also to pat Lavin at the Framingham History Center. I’d also like to thank Annie Murphy and Susan Silva at the Framingham History Center. They helped a lot as I was researching this episode. I’ll have pictures from their Denison exhibit on my website. Remember that subscribing is just one click away on iTunes or however you get your podcasts and of course, the conversation is going full steam ahead on social media, search for Christmas Past podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And that’s where you’ll find me along with all of the fun vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia I’m posting all the time. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll see you next time.

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