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100 years ago, holiday presents didn't always look great, but Kansas City's Hallmark fixed that

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Hallmark Archives historian Samantha Bradbeer stands next to a display of early gift wrap samples.

Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards, Inc., gets credit for starting the modern-day gift wrap industry in 1917 an invention created out of necessity during the holiday season. 

In the early 20th century, people didn't have a lot of options for making the tradition of unwrapping gifts more festive. They'd cover packages with brown shipping paper or newspaper, or sometimes wallpaper or fabric.

Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards, Inc., gets credit for starting the modern-day gift wrap industry 100 years ago, an invention created out of necessity during the holiday season. 

Around this time of year in 1917, the Halls store, then a small shop in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, stocked greeting cards along with red, green, and white tissue paper for wrapping gifts — until they sold out of it. 

As the story goes, Hallmark founder J.C. Hall asked his older brother, Rollie, to look for a substitute wrapping paper at the manufacturing plant.

"And he came across these envelope liners," says Hallmark historian Samantha Bradbeer. "They were originally acquired from France. So Rollie thought maybe the full pattern might do well as a giftwrap option."

Credit courtesy: Hallmark Cards, Inc.
courtesy: Hallmark Cards, Inc.
An early swatch of gift wrap with the Hallmark label.

Rollie Hall rushed from the plant back to the store and stacked the envelope liners next to the cash register, Bradbeer says.

"And they quickly flew off the shelves. Compared to the gift dressing that was available, these were geometric shapes, patterns, floral designs, Christmas motifs. The American market had not yet seen something like that." 

Bradbeer, an archivist, spends a lot of her time in Hallmark's Archives at the company's headquarters.

"So this is the vault," she explains as she opens the key-coded doors, "what I consider to be the brain of Hallmark. We like to say that our creative community is the heart of Hallmark. And then this is really the memory-keeping of it all."

Items are stored on rows of shelving in the temperature-controlled room. The Archives aren't just for history's sake. They're also used for inspiration, product development and research.

"So we try to keep samples of every product line from every year, including our gift wrap," says Bradbeer. 

Two years after Hallmark sold brightly colored envelope liners as gift wrap, the company started designing and manufacturing its own. By the 1930s it was testing ribbons, and in the '50s, there was a big push to market gift wrap, ribbons and bows.

A 1958 Hallmark film called The Art of Gift Wrapping featured a gift-wrap stylist called Kaye King. About 20 women traveled the country as Kaye King in the '50s and '60s, appearing at conventions and women's groups and teaching them how to wrap beautiful presents.

"That’s what I did, mostly big bows, put them on boxes sometimes," says Beverly Blickenstaff, of Searcy, Arkansas, "and helped people try it."

Credit courtesy: Hallmark Cards, Inc.
courtesy: Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Beverly Blickenstaff, one of Hallmark's Kaye Kings, traveled to department stores in the 1950s, demonstrating gift wrap techniques.

While Blickenstaff's husband, Wayne, attended dental school in Kansas City, she traveled as Kaye King to department stores in cities such as Houston, Memphis, and New Orleans, demonstrating Hallmark innovations like the Hall Sheen ribbon.  

"Rather a new thing in that it just stuck to itself without tying a knot," recalls Blickenstaff, "so you just moistened it, made your loop and it stuck." 

Now in her 80s, Blickenstaff says it’s a skill one doesn't forget.

"I still like to wrap packages," she says.

Today, about 35,000 retail stores around the country stock Hallmark gift wrap, most of it printed at the company's production plant in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Mary Emanuel, creative director of gift wrap, flanked by gift wrap samples in the gift wrap planning room at Hallmark's headquarters.

And Hallmark continues to roll out new products. In the gift wrap planning room at company headquarters, walls are lined with holiday and birthday designs for 2018.

"I call myself a paper connoisseur," says Mary Emanuel, Hallmark's creative director of gift wrap. "I've always loved pattern and color, and I love the bold impressions that our gift wrap makes."

These days it’s a lot less labor-intensive to wrap gifts with pre-made bows or gift bags, Emanuel says. But wrapping, she says, can still reflect style.

"We know people are time-pressed, but they really want their gifts to stand out and look like they spent a lot of time on them," says Emanuel.

Her team looks for design inspiration in the fashion industry or home décor — and from Hallmark’s past. For the 100th anniversary, they re-imagined four of the nearly century-old gift wrap prints.

"We were looking for some of the truly classic patterns that we think still resonate with our consumers today," says Emanuel.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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