How would you feel if, instead of finding a pretty arrangement of wrapped GIFTS under the tree on Christmas morning, you discovered a naked jumble of store-bought merchandise with the price tags still on? What is it that turns an ordinary purchase into a Christmas gift? Nineteenth-century Americans found the answer to that question in decorative wrapping paper. Once encased in the paper, the individual identity and cost of each item disappeared. All that remained visible was the wrapping, a symbolic statement of the item’s status as gift. Today we use the trick of wrapping paper to turn ordinary store-bought items into gifts for all sorts of occasions.
Christmas gift giving was an uncommon practice throughout most of the nineteenth century (see also CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA). Moreover, those who gave gifts seldom bothered to wrap them. Parents deposited trinkets in their children’s STOCKINGS as is, and adults exchanged small homemade items without bothering to disguise them. In the late nineteenth century the idea of exchanging Christmas gifts grew more popular, and some people began to shop for them in stores.
Around 1880 people began to wrap their purchases in decorative paper or decorated boxes. At the same time retailers were searching for a way to encourage people to give store-bought rather than homemade items as Christmas gifts. Many consumers objected that manufactured goods were too impersonal and COMMERCIAL to serve as appropriate Christmas gifts. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, retailers began to wrap their customers’ holiday purchases in paper decorated with CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS. They discovered that the special wrapping paper boosted sales enormously. Apparently removing the price tag and encasing the item in wrapping paper transformed manufactured goods into acceptable gifts by disguising their true identity until the last moment and emphasizing instead their status as a gift.
At the turn of the century manufacturers also adopted the new sales gimmick. They began to ship all kinds of wares in decorative holiday packaging. If consumers wondered whether these ordinary manufactured items could serve as appropriate gifts, the holiday packaging removed all doubt. By the 1920s manufacturers had added one more detail to this already successful strategy. Instead of shipping goods in special packaging they slipped special, decorative sleeves around standard packaging. Retailers could remove the holiday sleeve right after Christmas, thereby turning their special “Christmas stock” back into ordinary stock.