Disguising presents with decorative sheets of paper is, like so many other things, an accident of history.
There will likely come a day, sometime in the not-too-distant future, when we look back on wrapping paper with the kind of retrospective condescension we reserve for the most naive elements of our history. Wasting precious paper -- killing trees -- for decoration! Spending money on a total frivolity! How ridiculous people were back then!
And it is true: The money we spend on it notwithstanding -- $2.6 billion annually, per one estimate -- there is something quite trivial about wrapping paper. As much as half of the 85 million tons of paper products Americans consume each year, apparently, goes toward packaging, wrapping, and decorating objects -- and wrapping paper and shopping bags on their own account for about 4 million tons of the trash we create annually in the U.S. In Britain, per one estimate, people throw away 226,800 miles of wrapping paper over the holidays alone -- enough to stretch nine times around the world.
So wrapping paper is expensive. Wrapping paper is wasteful. Wrapping paper is, technically, impractical. That said, however, wrapping paper is also pretty awesome: It's pretty, it's arty, and it's one way, among others, to make even the most impersonal offerings -- gift cards, electronics, even (eeeek) cash -- seem meaningful. For better or for worse, there's just something about a big, red bow.
But where did the wrapping tradition come from? Why do we, each time we give a gift, ritually wrap that offering in decorative tree pulp? The short answer is that wrapping, as a practice, has been around for ages -- literally, ages. The Japanese furoshiki, the reusable wrapping cloth still in use today, is a pretty faithful rendition of the version that's been around since the Edo period. The Korean bojagi dates from the Three Kingdoms Period, possibly as early as the first century A.D. In the west, using paper as a covering for gifts has been a longstanding, if largely luxury-oriented, practice: Upper-class Victorians regularly used elaborately decorated paper -- along with ribbons and lace -- to conceal gifts. In the early 20th century, thick, unwieldy paper gave way to tissue (often colored in red, green, and white) that would similarly work to conceal offerings until they were opened. The practice was echoed in a slightly more practical form by stores, which would wrap customers' purchases in sturdy manila papers. (A note, printed in Hardware Dealers' Magazine in 1911, hints at the core pragmatism of this practice: "Whatever your business," it advises, "leave the freak wrapping papers to the other fellow and you will make friends for your store by this means.")
In 1917, however, in the United States, all that -- the tissue paper, the luxury paper, the "freak" paper -- changed. Decorative paper became democratized. According to Mental Floss, which knows of such things, that happened for the same reason so many innovations come about: by accident. A pair of brothers running a stationery store in Kansas City, Mo., were having an exceptionally good holiday season -- so good, in fact, that they ran out of their standard inventory of tissue paper. Not wanting to be hampered by their success, but needing a replacement for the sold-out paper, they found among their supplies a stack of "fancy French paper" -- paper meant not for display, but for lining envelopes. Figuring, "hey, why not," they put that paper in a showcase, setting its price at $0.10 a sheet.
And the paper sold out -- "instantly," Mental Floss notes. So, during the holiday season of 1918, the brothers tried the same trick, offering lining paper as gift wrap. And, again, the sheets were a sell-out hit. By 1919, having confirmed that the lining sheets' sales weren't a fluke, the pair began producing and selling their own printed paper -- decorative, and designed for the sole purpose of wrapping gifts. And an industry was born.
The brothers? Joyce and Rollie Hall. Their store? Hallmark.