All wrapped up in elegant papers

From corporate headquarters in a corncrib, Eleanor Finch has produced some of the world's most elegant gift-wrap. Finch Handprints, silk-screened and admittedly ''a quality product,'' had their birth soon after World War II. Looking back on more than 30 years of business success, their creator admits that timing had much to do with it.

''The papers caught on because it was an opportune time,'' Miss Finch notes. ''I don't take any credit for it. I simply had no competition. There wasn't anyone else who was doing what we were, so it was an open field.''

Eleanor Finch began producing her papers for a simple reason. ''One day I was looking for something to wrap a package in,'' she recalls, ''and I could only find the cheapest, most awful paper. I decided then and there that there was a need for high quality gift-wrapping. When I bought this place in 1946,'' she continues, waving her hand around the living room of her gracious 18th-century farmhouse, ''I had thought of going into some kind of business. I considered silk-screened fabric, but when I saw the market for gift-wrapping, that seemed a natural.''

Although the reason behind her business venture was simple, her background for the job was impressive. A graduate of the Pratt School of Design in New York , she had supervised a staff of 800 in the state crafts program for Connecticut under the professional division of the WPA during World War II.

''We would develop the need for a particular craft - such as weaving or metalworking or silk-screening - and then we would hire the people to do it,'' she explains. ''The crafts from the program were used to decorate public buildings such as schools, libraries, and government offices, so people were working on something worthwhile rather than just keeping busy.''

When she decided to launch her own company, Miss Finch literally started at the bottom - in the basement of her house. ''I couldn't build because of the postwar restrictions,'' she says, ''so we operated out of the basement. That's where we did the printing and everything. There's a fireplace down there, and the buyers would sit around the fire and write their orders. They'd never seen anything like it, and they loved it.''

As soon as restrictions were lifted, she designed a building around the farm's old corncrib. ''The corncrib was the studio, and we did the printing downstairs,'' she says.

With a small production staff in Clinton and 16 salesmen on the road throughout the United States, Eleanor Finch Handprints, which retailed from the start at $1 per sheet, began wrapping gifts from coast to coast. They also filled the shelves of such stores as Lord & Taylor, Altman's, Saks, and J. L. Hudson in Detroit.

''We had something different,'' Miss Finch says, commenting on the immediate popularity of her product. ''When one of the top stores got it, the others wanted it too. It was different first because it was expensive. I was producing a high quality product, and I had to charge a top price. Second, it was different because of the designs. The paper that became my trademark was the black suede with the white zebra on it. We always had a ribbon designed to go with each paper. The ribbon with that one was black satin with two silver stripes in it.''

Appreciating the freedom to experiment that self-employment provided, Miss Finch admits that she took full advantage of the opportunity. ''I once did a black wedding paper,'' she recalled. ''The wedding party, the bride in white lace, was dancing in squares bordered by tiny lilies of the valley with delicate green leaves. Now if I had been with a large company and had designed a black wedding paper, they would have been horrified. As it was, the design went very well.''

Despite the popularity of this black paper, color was a vital part of her designs, and she personally mixed all of the colors used. ''At first, I did it with a mixer that was made out of the motor of an old refrigerator that my mother had thrown out,'' she says.

Although the lion's share of the designing also fell to her, she was ready and willing to listen to suggestions from others. ''At times, one of the salesmen would come up with a design idea,'' she says, ''and we would always try to work it out.''

Buyers, as well as salesmen, often got in on the design stage of a new line. ''One of the essentials in business,'' Miss Finch says, ''is to make friends out of your buyers. When I had a design idea, I would often pick up the telephone and talk with one or more of the buyers about it. I'd even send them a rough sketch and say, 'What do you think about this?' That way they weren't just being handed something cold. They felt that they had a part in it. Another rule that I always followed with the buyers was never to ship them a substitute.''

Instead of doing a design for a single paper, Miss Finch insisted from the start on developing an entire line around one design. ''I have always felt that it's essential to do a whole line rather than concentrating on a design for a single paper. For instance, when I thought that we needed children's paper, I would develop a design that could be used for infant's paper, paper for the older child, and so on until we had five or six numbers.''

She followed the same concept when she added stationery to her gift-wrapping products. ''I would develop a design and then use it in various renditions on cards, note paper, small sheets, and larger sheets. And each item would, of course, have a matching or contrasting envelope to go with it.''

When a design was settled, she spared no effort or expense to find the best artist to execute it. One season when she wanted a circus motif for a line of children's papers, she hired an artist from Holland to use all the characters from a European circus, rather than settling for the traditional American three-ring show.

Birds and animals proved popular, as did an extensive line of Early American papers featuring clipper ships. As to the shelf life of a design, she points out that the zebra ''was in as long as I made papers. Even though it's essential to have fresh new designs each year, you can't afford to discontinue the old favorites. The other day, I had a telephone call from a man in California saying , 'Where on earth can I get the paper with the Canadian Goose on it?' I get calls and letters like that all the time.''

Requests for custom-designed gift-wrapping were not unusual in the earlier days of the Handprints.

''We did custom papers for Claire Booth Luce, Revlon, a number of the Hollywood personalities,'' Miss Finch noted. ''I remember one year doing special Christmas paper for Mrs. Edsel Ford. It was black with stylized angels on it. Their wings were silver, their bodies a soft dusty rose, and we had a wide satin ribbon done in the same rose color.''

Even the White House has used its share of Finch papers, as a note of appreciation from Mamie Eisenhower attests.

Speaking of being a ''corporate woman'' when this was a more unusual position than it is today, Miss Finch notes, ''I had no problems being a woman in business. I never failed to pay my bills and on time, and I think that's the key to doing business whether you're a man or a woman.''

When C. R. Gibson bought her business in 1971, Eleanor Finch signed a five-year contract with that company to continue overseeing her line. Today her brother Dean remains involved in the production of Finch Handprints for Gibson.

Upon her official retirement in 1976, Eleanor Finch could look back on three decades of heading a successful company - successful from both a financial and an aesthetic point of view. Yet she sums up her impressive career quite simply, ''I worked day and night, but I always had a good time.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.