Friday, May 21, 2010

Bagging Gift Wrap in a Paperless Society

Back in February, I posted an entry entitled Online Writers at Fordham University, which was about my Writing for Online Media class, where the focus was on having the students do their own individual blogs.  You can check them all out from the links on that post, or on the side column a little bit down from here.  And I have to say that I am absolutely impressed and proud of the work my 17 young bloggists did in my class, kudos to you all!

But in this post, I do want to single out one of the blogs, because of a post that involves me, and got me to thinking.  The blog is by Sarah Romeo, and it's called The Gift Wrap Blog.  Now, you may be surprised to hear that one of my students devoted her blog to the topic of gift wrapping (they were asked to pick their own topic or theme), I know I was, but hey, why not?  And it actually turned out to be a very well done blog, albeit one that branched out somewhat into the larger topic of gift giving.

Anyway, as we were going over the individual blogs in one class, and discussing this particular one, it occurred to me that Sarah might want to consider the topic of gift bags.  Indeed, given her emphasis on careful selection of paper, and the skillful folding of the wrapping paper around the gift, I thought she might want to write a post criticizing or even denouncing the use of gift bags as a lazy and thoughtless alternative to gift wrapping.

So, Sarah did pick up on my suggestion in a post dated April 23rd, and entitled, Gift Bags: Lovely or Lazy? There, she wrote:

I have recently been accused by two trusted academics (my blogging professor and my mother) of being anti-gift bag. "Do you hate gift bags?" they asked me. "Because you never blog about them, and you always emphasize the importance that coincides putting effort into wrapping. You must detest gift bags."

Now, I am honored to be in such company as Sarah Romeo's mom, but I must protest the misquoting here, as I never accused Sarah of being a hater, even of gift bags (she is one of the nicest students I've had the pleasure of teaching), although as her instructor I do applaud her use of hyperbole to make for a more interesting post than it would otherwise be.  Yes, I'm being schizophrenic, but that's because I'm wearing two hats here at the same time, and if the medium is the message, then wearing two hats will result in a split personality.

Now, let me confess that I have used gift bags, it's true, and whenever I have, I was well aware that it was the lazy way out.  I actually do pride myself on being able to wrap gifts, even irregularly sized ones, although to be perfectly frank they don't always come out in a manner that Martha Stewart would approve of.  But they do get wrapped, and they do look okay at the very least.

But this whole issue piqued my interest as a media ecologist, so the first question I would ask is, when did we start using gift wrap in the first place?  My guess would be that it's a fairly recent development, as packing also is fairly recent, and I would guess that it was connected to the development of a method of manufacturing paper from wood pulp in the late 19th century (before that, paper was made from linen).

But that's just guess work, so I decided to Google it, and found a site called, A History of Gift Wrap, featuring a short essay on the subject written by Mac Carey.  Here's an excerpt:

The technology did not exist to mass produce a decorated, foldable, paper until the 1890's, when developments in printing presses allowed colored ink to be printed fluidly on stiffer papers. A rotary system developed that allowed the printed paper to be rolled onto cardboard rolls or cut into smaller sheets. The printed gift wrap industry took off at the turn of the century. Hy-Sill Manufacturing Inc., founded by Eli Hyman and Morris Silverman, became the first American gift wrap company in 1903. Wrapping paper's biggest name, Hallmark, stumbled upon the gift wrap market by accident. In 1917, the Hall Brothers's typical offering of green, red, and white tissue paper had sold out in their Kansas City, Missouri store a few days before Christmas. The resourceful owner, Rollie Hall, had sheets of decorative envelope liners shipped over from a manufacturing plant. He placed these large patterned sheets on top of a showcase and sold them for 10 cents each. The decorative paper quickly sold out. The next year, the sheets sold for three for 25 cents, and again they quickly disappeared. The brothers began printing their own Christmas wrapping paper, and soon gift wrap sales rivaled their greeting card department.

Carey goes on to note the great skill required to gift wrap a present in those early days, because scotch tape did not become available until the 1930s!

So, putting it all in context, gift wrap is a product of industrial age print culture, and related to the practice of packaging products that only started to happen in the 19th century, and mostly in the 20th.  No doubt, it also had much to do with the production and use of cardboard boxes, another 19th century development (see Cardboard -- History).  And I would imagine that gift wrap was a response to mass production, a way to personalize a gift that is otherwise impersonal in that it's one of numerous identical items produced in a factory.

So, is it any coincidence that as we've moved from a typographic-industrial culture, the era of McLuhan's mechanical bride, to an electronic culture and information society, we see the relatively recent introduction of gift bags as an alternative to wrapping paper.  Gift wrapping requires skill and patience, which fits in with the delayed gratification associated with literacy; gift bags are lazy, and coincide with the desire for immediate gratification associated with television and other electronic media.  And as we are moving into a paperless society on account of the spread of electronic, digital technologies, it makes sense that our interest in and fondness for all kinds of paper, including wrapping paper, declines.  That is, it is no longer seen as a necessity in relation to gift-giving, but is relegated to a highly specialized sort of art form.

Admittedly, this is a minor development in the grand scheme to things, but it is very much a reflection and symptom of the changes in media and technology that we have been undergoing, as the old media environment gives way to a new one.  And this kind of speculation, I might add, lighthearted and fun, is very much a part of the media ecology intellectual tradition, especially as it existed in the old media ecology program created by Neil Postman, Terry Moran, and Christine Nystrom.

As for my student, Sarah Romeo, as it turns out, she doesn't hate gift bags, and in her post she gives four good reasons why she likes them.  Of course, Sarah is a product of this new media environment, you know, the one that has blogs in it, even blogs about gift wrapping (as Marshall McLuhan noted, the content of a new medium is often an older medium).

So, just remember that you can't look a gift wrapped horse in the mouth, and as for this post, let's bag it!


chad calease said...

Hi, Lance,

I've been thinking about this since I just read it. This is indeed a good metaphor for media ecology.

From a cultural POV, reminds me of a great book you've most likely heard of:

What I'm about to say may be simplistic, however, at the cost of revealing how much I do not know about this topic, I'll say this: the way gift wrap comes into all of this is interesting, much as in the way content is delivered today. Wrappers are envelopes within which content, messages, gifts, etc. are sent and delivered. Surely, the battles of taste may not ever be won. Whether it's gift wrap, gift bags, VP8 or H264 makes a subtle difference that can lead to significant shifts over time:

Another thing I take from this line of thinking isn't so much about what the outside looks like as what's being delivered on the inside. In either case, the anthropology around these delivery methods and protocols is fascinating, especially (referring to Mauss's work) in the context of potlatch and value systems. What do our protocols do for us in Western culture? How have they changed? Have they changed value in any way? What contracts are associated with these gifts? Are any of them cancelled out by one another?

Whoops, I'm rambling ; )

Meanwhile, thanks for your thought-provoking post.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks for your comment, Chad. Back in the day, Postman et al's assignment for first year doctoral students was to pick a pre-20th century technology and do a media history paper about it. Someone, maybe it was David Linton, did the tea bag and suggested that it introduced the concept of packaging, and that concept, along with the related idea of boxing items, both of which seems perfectly natural to us (and in recent years, also sealing items up with shrink wrap) are historical inventions that influence the way we think, behave, and organize ourselves. Given that a humble invention like the stirrup was instrumental in the creation of feudal society, something as seemingly insignificant as wrapping paper may in fact play an important role in influencing our culture.

chad calease said...

Lance, I was not hip to the stirrup/feudalism theory. How very interesting. Makes me think of the first attached garages built after WWII and how that changed pedestrian life in the States. Incredible how these seemingly subtle changes lead to such tremendous shifts, both good and not so good.

Thanks, again, for sharing these ideas. You've improved my perspective, if not my vision to see how subtle changes in my own life lead to bigger, badder, and sometimes better, changes. Cheers.