Stringed lights, artificial trees and reams of wrapping paper have become so commonplace at Christmas that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that they haven’t always been here. But as much as we might take them for granted, they are inventions like any other. Here are the stories behind some of the creators and companies who gave us our yuletide trappings.
ELI HYMAN, MORRIS SILVERMAN and JOYCE C HALL
Rolled gift wrap was made possible by the flexography printing process developed in England in the late 1800s, which enabled large swathes of paper to be printed on without deterioration or tearing. This technology was taken advantage of by Hyman and Silverman’s Hy-Sil Company to produce rolls of patterned paper that children of all ages could rip through to their hearts’ content. As such, Hy-Sil became the first, dedicated gift-wrap manufacturer in 1903. Fourteen years later, a branch of Hallmark moved into sheet wrap by accident, when the Kansas City shop managed by founder Joyce C Hall ran out of coloured tissue. Thinking on his feet, Hall’s brother Rollie replaced the tissue with patterned liners normally used in oversized presentation envelopes. In his autobiography, Joyce said: ‘I never saw anything accepted so quickly.’
Economic gift Renamed as The Gift Wrap Company and now under UK ownership, Hy-Sil resides in a 500,000 sq ft facility in Midway, Georgia. Hallmark is now a $4.1bn company with its own TV channel.
Transparent adhesive tape
Sometimes you have to take the rougher side of life before you get to the smooth, and this was especially true for manufacturer 3M. Until Drew joined its ranks in 1923, it made mostly sandpaper. Nonetheless, it was keen to branch out, and as an automobile enthusiast, Drew already had a problem in mind that he wanted to solve. Impressed by the two-tone paint jobs created by finishers in the car-making business, he wanted to make it easier for them to seamlessly join one colour to the next. Reasoning that a removable paper strip would help car painters create clean edges, he set about developing a tape that would stick well once it was pressed down, but come off smoothly when pulled away. An early product test led one painter to call 3M ‘scotch’ – slang for stingy – for not putting enough adhesive on the tape. So when it was finally launched in 1930, the product was trademarked Scotch Brand Cellulose Tape. It took off immediately, helping consumers to fix rather than buy during the Depression. And no longer would consumers use string and sealing wax to secure their gift parcels.
Economic gift After eating up the stationery market, 3M moved into computing and healthcare supplies. Total global sales for 2010 hit $27bn.
ADDIS BRUSH COMPANY
There are fake Christmas trees with green branches that look like Astroturf; others that sprout white or silver tinsel; and even advanced ones that shimmer with the power of built-in fibre optics. But before all of those, there was the ‘bog-standard’ Christmas tree. Why the derogatory term? Well, it’s not really derogatory at all: the first artificial tree was made from exactly the same materials as toilet brushes. In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company spotted a new commercial use for the bendy wire covered in bristles of animal hair that it used for its lavatory implements. Soon enough, the machines in its US factory were retooled to be able to wind the wire into tree-like forms, and fit them with standing bases rather than wooden handles. A quick paint job later, and Addis trees looked lifelike enough to appeal to Depression-era homemakers, who saved money by reusing them year after year.
Economic gift While Addis passed the torch to other tree makers, the company’s festive initiative helped it to become the major manufacturer of household goods that it is today, with offices all over the world. William Addis, who founded the business in 1780, would be proud.
EDWARD JOHNSON, ALBERT SADACCA and LESTER TAFT
Johnson developed the world’s first set of stringed lights under the tutelage of the great Thomas Edison, and released it in 1882. But Sadacca’s set of 1917 put the emphasis on safety features. According to inventor lore, Sadacca began work on his effort aged just 15, after hearing of a horrific neighbourhood fire kindled by naked flames. Junction-box entrepreneurs soon got in on the act, selling units that could patch in several strings, or ‘festoons’, of lights at once – but they were quickly outmoded by Taft’s invention: a linking device called the Tatchon that enabled consumers to string several festoons together. Taft obtained a powerful patent on the device, which outraged companies that wanted to produce their own versions. Some of them fruitlessly tried to extinguish the patent, but Sadacca was convinced it would be best for the warring parties to form a trade association that would make it easier for IP licences to be exchanged.
Economic gift Following an industry summit in 1925, the National Outfit Manufacturer's Association (NOMA) was born. It incorporated the following year, and was a major force in the US electrical sector until its bankruptcy in 1965. Despite going bust, it set the tone for the entire decorative lighting industry.
Red-and-white Santa Claus
It would be wrong – and indeed has become a widespread myth – to credit Sundblom as the direct creator of the red-and-white Santa. The fictitious figure that we all know and love in fact evolved from artistic portrayals of the real-life Saint Nicholas, a selfless Turkish Christian born in 270 AD who became Bishop of Myra. Initial representations of the Saint showed him in traditional bishop’s vestments, but over hundreds of years he was filtered through Germanic and Scandinavian mythology and distilled into the legendary ‘Santa Claus’. In early 20th Century America, US cartoonists and illustrators began to draw Santa with jolly, red-and-white robes, and his new identity was complete. All it needed was to be made incredibly popular, and fate marked out graphic designer Sundblom as the right man for the job. Well, not fate as such… but Coca-Cola. In the early 1930s, the beverage maker approached him to create adverts for use on billboards and magazine pages that would seal a marriage of convenience: Santa’s robes were red and white, and – hey presto – so were Coke’s colours. A piece of brand fusion centuries in the making had taken place, and Santa fizzed into previously uncharted levels of hype.
Economic gift An entire cult of Santa worshippers that constantly regenerates itself, commonly known as children. And, of course, THAT Coke advert, which starts airing in late November to let us know that ‘holidays are coming…’