Saturday, December 23, 2023

Flashback 1987: Wrap session — pros prep pretty parcels

     Christmas is almost upon us. And I imagine more than one reader still has presents left to wrap. Luckily, I have just the thing to help — this 36-year-old chestnut from back when I worked at the Adviser, a section of the paper that did exactly that: advise readers on how to do stuff. It breaks the heart, a little, to consider the newspaper once had a special section, with a staff of three, devoted to dispensing practical information. A quick search of the internet could find the same information now.
     Or maybe not. Reading this over, I'm struck by the tone — a certain insouciance that gives the story a certain flair, even if you, like me, don't have any gifts to wrap, nor Christmas to celebrate. 
    There are a few aspects of historical interest — Carson Pirie Scott is long gone: it's a Target now. And I'd never dare mention the Uncle Remus "Tar Baby" character in any context.

     In an ideal world, you would never have to wrap a gift. Your gifts would be wrapped at stores, by professionals who know what they are doing. You would watch.
     But in the same way that you occasionally are called on to change a tire, the day will come when you will be forced to wrap presents.
     Perhaps the line at the gift-wrap center will be intolerably long. Perhaps you are giving so many gifts that the $2 to $6 most stores charge to wrap gifts will start to add up. Perhaps you got the gift at a place that doesn't gift wrap.
     For whatever reason, you find yourself face to face with a present (or, worse, several presents, or, far worse, several presents of odd sizes). You can't just thrust it, unwrapped, into the recipient's hands, though that idea might seem preferable to trying to learn how to wrap.
     An unwrapped present is almost worse than no present at all; no matter what care and time you put in to buy a present, without any wrapping, the gift screams: "I bought it on my way over."
     Actually, gift wrapping need not be an ordeal, if you know what you are doing. Before you spend the money on gift wrap, tape, ribbons and the like, only to get yourself all tangled up like Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby, spend some time looking over the shoulder of an expert, such as Carrie Bobo, who has been wrapping presents at Carson Pirie Scott & Co. for 17 years.
     First, you need the right equipment. Bobo uses a large, heavy tape dispenser so she can tear off pieces with one hand. Odds are you don't have one, so plan to use a small roll of tape that requires two hands.
     The problem is that you have to take your hands away from the gift you're working on, making it that much harder to wrap neatly. You end up trying to do things with bits of tape stuck to your fingers. So a dispenser may be worth the investment: After all, Christmas comes every year, not to mention all the birthdays and anniversaries in between.
     Bobo begins by placing several sheets of white tissue paper in a box. Since the paper is longer than the box, she makes an "S" fold in the center, drawing in the ends until they are the right length, then creasing the fold down. (Tip No. 1: It is always neater and quicker to fold something instead of cutting it. You also can redo a fold if it is too short, but if you cut it too short, you have to start over.)
     Amateur wrappers often overlook the tissue, in the mistaken notion that only department stores have access to it. But tissue is available almost everywhere wrapping paper is sold.
    "The tissue is very important," Bobo said, putting a leather jacket into the box and folding the tissue over it. "It keeps the merchandise so it will be nice when it's unpacked."
     After securing the tissue with a Carson's sticker (you can use tape or a sticker of your own), she begins the actual wrapping of the gift.
     Before doing anything, Bobo taps the four corners of the box with the handle of her scissors, to blunt the edges and keep the box from ripping through the paper.
     Cutting a piece of wrapping paper so that it will just overlap when wrapped around the box, Bobo then places the paper on the table, design side down. (Tip No. 2: If you want to save money on gift wrap, use materials around the house. The Sunday color comics can be used for children's presents, and the stock tables pages for a gift to a stockbroker.)
     Then she puts the box, top down, in the center of the paper. She takes the end of the paper closest to her and folds it up and over and tapes it down, so the seam is just in the center of the bottom of the box (which, remember, is facing up). It's a common mistake not to do this, out of a reluctance to affix tape to the box. A key to wrapping a gift is tightness: A loosely wrapped gift looks sloppy.
     Pulling hard, Bobo draws the other end around and, because it is too long, folds the end under until there is just a little overlap. Then she tapes that end down as well, keeping it taut and using small squares of tape. (Tip No. 3: Small pieces of tape work as well as long strips, which tend to fold over on themselves and ruin the job. You want the gift wrap to stay put, not be watertight.)
     Now she has the left and right ends to take care of. Using both hands, she folds the two sides on the left of the box in, creasing to create a top and bottom flap. The top flap gets folded down and taped. Then the bottom flap goes up and is taped as well. (Tip No. 4: If you want a more professional look, use double-sided tape, which can be tucked under the flaps, out of sight. But be forewarned: Double-sided tape is trickier than regular tape). Bobo repeats the process on the right side: tw o sides in, top flap down, bottom flap up.
     Here you might cheat a bit and slap on one of those pre-formed bows and be done with it. Bobo doesn't, because pre-formed bows tend to get crushed. She uses a cloth ribbon instead. She makes a loop around the width of the box, staples it (tape won't hold cloth ribbon very well), then adds a loop around the length of the box, and staples it.
     Where the two lengths of ribbon cross, where the staples are, she makes a bow by cutting two short lengths of ribbon, folding them over, and stapling them in place. Then she cuts a tiny ring of ribbon, staples it around the center of the bow, and rotates the ribbon to hide its staple and the others as well.
     As a final touch, Bobo snips the loose ends of the bow into points. (Tip No. 5: For added pizzazz, curl the ribbon. Holding it taught against a scissors blade, draw the ribbon across the scissors blade.)
      You can make simpler bows. For a snowball bow, you need to curl about 8 yards of ribbon, then gather the curls into a ball shape and tie them in the center with a separate piece of ribbon. Then attach it to the gift.
     Making a tie bow also is quite simple: Just take a piece of ribbon, tinsel or yarn, loop it back and forth several times, tie it in the center with a shorter piece, tug the loops into shape, and attach to the gift.
     Finally, before slipping the finished gift into a shopping bag, Bobo makes a small ring out of a strip of cardboard and tucks the ribbon inside to keep it from being crushed. (The ring, of course, is removed once the gift has arrived at its destination.)
   If you are wrapping a cylinder shape, like a liquor gift box or an oatmeal box (within which, it is assumed, you are hiding a more desirable gift than oatmeal), there are two ways to go about it: the difficult way, and the not-so-difficult way.
     To wrap a cylinder the difficult way, trace two circles on the paper, using the bottom of the box as a guide. Cut them out. Then wrap the cylinder in paper, taking care to leave a bit overhanging on top and bottom, and tape this paper in place. Take a scissors and make small snips in the paper sticking out from the top and bottom, and tape these tabs down. Then tape the cut-out circles to the top and bottom to hide the tabs. Slap a ribbon on top, and voila!
     The not-so-difficult way leaves the gift looking something like a Tootsie Roll. Wrap the cylinder in paper that is about twice as long as the package, with half a length projecting past either end. Gather the excess together and tie it with ribbon or yarn, then cut the leftovers into strips, which can be curled or left straight.
     The key to wrapping odd-shaped gifts is to put them in boxes. The whole point of gift wrap is to create a moment of suspense, a thrill of expectation, before the happy recipient claws through the paper with a giddy "what is this?" look on her face.
     Some countries take this to extremes. In the Netherlands, for instance, there is a tradition known as julklapp, where gifts are wrapped in layer upon layer of elaborately prepared wrapping, designed to hide the nature of the gift. Thus, a piece of jewelry might be wrapped up in paper normally used for candy, then wrapped in brown paper, layers of cloth and, perhaps, baked in a casing of dough and then wrapped in a few more boxes.
     For ultimate convenience, new gift bags are the perfect solution. The bags resemble small shopping bags and are gaily decorated. Pop the gift in, toss in some crumpled tissue paper, and: instant present. It may not have the wallop of a Dutch julklapp, but if the present inside is nice enough, no one will mind.
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 13, 1987


  1. Gift bags save the day. I’m terrible at wrapping, and I hate doing it. Happy Holidays even if you don’t celebrate .

  2. Another bit of historical significance - the "stock pages" of the newspaper. I remember wrapping a gift for my dad in that section of the paper.
    And there you are, back in 1987, providing vocabulary from other languages!

  3. I started thinking about gift bags and how they must not have been a “thing” back then as I started reading this and wondered when that changed. Looks like in 1987 they were so “newfangled” that they had to be EXPLAINED! Wow.

    1. Just read that Hallmark introduced them in 1987. Gosh it’s hard to believe there were none before then

  4. When I was about 11, I earned a Scout merit badge for gift wrapping. A useful skill sure, but worth a badge? *Girl* Scouts of course. Happily, Girl Scouts now do much more adventurous things to earn their badges.

  5. Brings back lovely memories of downtown, when stores had “people” to do many helpful things for customers. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I’m a futurist at heart and all about creating what’s next, but this had me long ffir the good old days when I occasionally bought presents at the upscale stores that provided gift wrappers. I loved watching them so adeptly create these elegantly wrapped gifts with tools I remember thinking what a fun job to have when I retired and no longer needed a career of upward mobility and compensation. Little did I know then such a job would be ancient history! Love your brilliant mind and open heart, Neil. Thank you for sharing them in such a consistently uplifting manner.

  7. Marvelous! Wish I'd read this in '87.


  8. I don't even bother to try to wrap my wife's Christmas gifts. I've already told her that they will be in the original packaging.

  9. Von Maur stores still wrap for you!

  10. I worked at a drug store during high school. There was a woman there who had worked at the store forever, Mrs. Florence Rogers. She was an expert wrapper, and taught me how to do it. Boxes of candy, Timex watches, Parker T-Ball Jotter pens in boxes. Any size, any product, she was a magician and always with a smile and a kind word. Her method was just what you described here, and it is mine to this day. Whenever I wrap a present, I think "thank you Florence" and remember her kindness and patience.

    As an aside, if you can find them, brown paper grocery bags make a nice wrap too, not to mention book covers!

  11. Your descriptions and instructions are exceptionally clear, but as I continued reading one word (two words?) came to mind: Youtube!

  12. Glad you saved some time recycling this one, and I don't care that I learned nothing. I come from a competitive Christmas wrapping clan. My favorite ploy when giving teenagers the fancy sneakers on their list is to put them in a flat box more fitting for a sweater. I wrap a different gift in the shoe box, one meant for a sibling, which fools one sister into thinking the other is getting shoes, because they spend the week before Christmas examining the packages and speculating. The small gift in a big box can be amusing if you pack in enough unnecessary weight.

  13. My wife is one of those people who Christmas shops all year round, easily hides the gifts in our piggy house, and enjoys elaborately wrapping them early. Very early. Some years, she's done by Halloween. And they look like a professional did it. She enjoys the wrapping more than the giving.

    Me? I'm the opposite. Even shopping just for her is an annual ordeal for me. I hate the stores, the crowds, the obnoxious music, the prowling of the aisles until I find everything on her list. I call it those three or four or five days "The Shopping Frenzy."

    I shlep everything home, stash it in the basement, and wrap it all on the 23rd or the 24th...while listening to wrap music...jazz or classical. The gifts aren't wrapped prettily, just passably. I've gotten better at it, though. My gifts used to look like something a grammar school kid wrapped for his mother on Mother's Day. A young grammar school kid.

    My wife says my wrapping skills have improved a lot over the last three decades. I used to snark at folks who would just plop down their offerings in store bags, unwrapped and unadorned. Gift bags have now become a time-saving godsend. One step up from brown bags or store bags. The lazy man's friend. I've used them more and more in recent years.

    The word term “julklapp” translates to “Christmas gift” in Swedish. It literally means “Christmas knock”. This comes from an old Swedish custom where Christmas gift givers would knock on doors, toss in their gift, and run away, adding an element of surprise and mystery to the tradition.

    Apparently, the word has now morphed into meaning "gifts that are wrapped in layer upon layer of elaborately prepared wrapping, or a casing of some sort." My wife's large extended German family liked wrapping things in...well...things. Over the decades, it became more about the wild and crazy wrapping than about the present itself. Baked in a casing of dough? Try Jello. Or glue. Or a casing of hardened cement.

    Boxes in boxes in boxes were commonplace. My wife, the Coca-Cola collector, received bottled Coke one Christmas. In an IV bottle on a mobile stand, just like you'd see in a hospital. That's all history now. The young cousins are no longer young, and have grown kids, who now have their own kids. The aunts and uncles have long since passed on. Those were fun times.

  14. I actually worked at Carsons when they had gift wrapping in the area of customer service. I also volunteered with a Jewish group I joined in the late 70s that wrapped gifts in a mall for small donations. (Women's American ORT) I still wrap very well. It’s one of my favorite parts of gift giving.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.