Christmas is tomorrow and I am scrambling to wrap presents. So … this is the perfect time to do it like Great-Grandma, right?
The history of wrapping paper is long. You can read an overview here, here, or here. My favorite source is from my new favorite blog, here. The long and short of it is that wrapping gifts in decorative paper did not really come into vogue until the 1920’s. Tissue paper was the gift-wrap of the day until a happy coincidence inspired consumers to imbibe in decorative paper. The tale goes that two shop-keepers of a stationary store ran out of tissue paper during a busy Christmas season and so they tried selling sheets of a decorative French envelope lining paper instead. Sold out instantly. The next year they tried the same idea to see if it was a Thing. Behold, it was a Thing. By 1920, their store was printing and selling its own decorative gift-wrap and a tradition was born!
Guess who that was? Hallmark, obviously.
My great-grandmas, none of whom were particularly wealthy, were more likely wrapping their gifts in tissue and ribbon. The custom was white, red, or green tissue folded in the customary manner and fixed together with festive package seals. Tape was not in use at this time, so seals (kind of like the stickers you sometimes get with Christmas cards) were the only option and in lieu of expensive printed paper, the seals were one’s best bet to bring some festive Christmas cheer to the package.
According to Susan Waggoner, author of many vintage Christmas books, they were a nightmare to use: “To secure your package, you had to lick the seal’s gummed side, hold it in place until it stuck, and hope it didn’t fall off while you were tying the ribbon on. Seals leftover from last season had a tendency to dry out and curl up, making them especially difficult to use.” (Christmas Memories)
While tissue paper and ribbon are in rich supply, package seals similar to those from the 1920’s are … not. Also, it was really difficult to find the difference between package seals used to close gift-wrap and the Christmas seals which were put on Christmas cards to promote causes like the Red Cross and fighting tuberculosis.
I went to Paper Source thinking they’d probably have some metallic envelope seals but alas, all they had were stickers of either poinsettas or vintage cars. I opted for vintage cars.
I found some instructions on how to wrap gifts from a 1941 edition of the Pine River Journal on the MNHS digital newspaper database.
I took great pains to follow the directions. I admit becoming thoroughly confused about the figure eight slip knot. I tried it using tissue paper and a grocery bag.
The tissue paper was relatively easy. I only used the package seal on the seam and I didn’t really need to at that.
The grocery bag would have actually gone better without the package seals. The paper was too strong and they didn’t stick very well. I think I got a little taste of what it had been like for people with the gummed package seals that you had to lick like stamps and hold on there until they set. Buh.
I tried wrapping with the package seals and without and once I got going, I found that the twine and ribbon really did most of the work. I decided that if one is going to put ribbon on a gift, there’s really no point in using tape. Then (and this is my very favorite part) you can keep the wrapping paper and the ribbon and use it again and again!
I love reusing wrapping. I don’t think I’ve bought gift boxes, bags, ribbon, or tissue paper in about a decade. Wrapping paper I do buy every year, though, because it gets ripped and wrecked by the tape. BUT NOW. NOW I can be even more obnoxious about saving wrapping and even save the paper!!!!!
Overheard this afternoon opening presents with my in-laws: “Hey, don’t crumple that tissue! This is the first time it’s been used!”
My poor husband.