Sealing the Fate of Tuberculosis: The Christmas Seal Campaign & the Crusade Against Tuberculosis

Progressive journalist Jacob Riis, most famous for his How the Other Half Lives, wrote a 1904 article about Denmark’s successful Christmas seal fundraiser for the fight against tuberculosis. Inspired by Riis’s example, American Red Cross member Emily Bissell embarked on a similar mission to raise $300 to save Delaware’s Brandywine Sanatorium. After securing financing from friends, Bissell printed and sold 50,000 seals in the lobby of the Wilmington post office. She raised $25 on December 7, 1907, but then poor sales motivated Bissell to join forces with Philadelphia’s The North American. The popular newspaper published articles about “Stamping Out Tuberculosis” and boosted sales.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s support ensured a successful campaign with over $3,000 raised for Brandywine Sanatorium. A year later, the American Red Cross officially sponsored the Christmas seal campaign and brought in over $135,000. In 1919, the National Tuberculosis Association assumed control of the campaign. This occasion was marked by the appearance of the NTA’s double-barred cross, the universal symbol of the anti-TB crusade, on the 1920 Christmas seals.

1920seal

Seven years after Bissell’s first Christmas campaign, the Kentucky Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis joined forces with the National Red Cross Society to sell Christmas seals. Proceeds from the sale went to anti-tuberculosis work in the state. The First Biennial Report of the State Tuberculosis Commission noted that “nearly 2,000,000 seals, accompanied by more or less educational matter, have been put in the hands of over 2,700 individuals for sale or redistribution” (13). As late as 1944, financing for state, county, and local tuberculosis associations relied on the sale of Christmas seals each year. Given that Kentucky’s sanatoria were operated by local and county organizations until 1950, Christmas seals ensured the treatment of thousands of consumptive Kentuckians.

The American Lung Association continues to sell Christmas seals to this day, albeit the fundraiser is intended to promote awareness of lung health and not just tuberculosis. You can order your 2016 Christmas seals here. A complete gallery of seals from 1920 – the present can be found on the American Lung Association’s Christmas Seal site.

Here are a few of my favorites over the decades:

Sources:

American Lung Association. “The History of Christmas Seals.” Christmas Seals. 2015. http://www.christmasseals.org/history/

First Biennial Report of the Kentucky Tuberculosis Commission. January 1914.

National Institutes of Health. “Tuberculosis – Visual Culture & Public Health Posters.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2011. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/visualculture/tuberculosis.html

Schulman, Sol. “Thousands Doomed to Die Get Reprieve from the State.” The Courier-Journal. August 13, 1944.

“Stamping out Tuberculosis with Christmas seals.” University of Virginia. 2007. http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/alav/seals/

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