In the early 1900’s tuberculosis was the number one killer in the United States. Doctors were beginning to make progress with survivability in various sanatoriums around the country.
Sanatorium: a medical facility for long-term care.
In December 1907, a small sanatorium near Wilmington, Deleware was having financial troubles. The Brandywine Sanatorium was $300 short of being able to remain open through the winter.
Dr. Jospeh Wales was a physician at the sanatorium. He approached his cousin Emily Bissell for assistance in raising the needed funds. Emily was an active member of the American Red Cross and a seasoned fundraiser.
Emily was inspired by an article written by Jacob Riis. Riis had lost seven brothers to tuberculosis. He wrote an article suggesting that the United States should do what a postal clerk in Denmark had done to raise money. The clerk in Denmark had created and sold Christmas Seals to raise money to combat tuberculosis in 1904. The Danish Christmas Seal program had raised $20,000. Enough for them to build a dedicated tuberculosis hospital.
Bissell borrowed money from friends and printed the first 50,000 Christmas Seals.
On December 9, 1907, and with permission from the postmaster of the Willmington Post Office, she sold her seals for $.01 each in the lobby.
That first day she raised $25 –2500 Christmas Seals– and then sales slowed way down.
She asked for help from one of the area’s most popular newspapers. The North American ran articles every day under the heading “Stamp out Tuberculosis.” This caused sales to skyrocket, and soon they had ordered another 250,000 seals.
This was written on the outside of the envelope
Put this stamp with message bright
On every Christmas letter;
Help the tuberculosis fight,
And make the New Year better.
These stamps do not carry any kind of mail
but any kind of mail will carry them.
The campaign soon caught the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt who endorsed the idea. By the end of the 1907 Christmas season, she had raised $3,000 to keep the Brandywine Sanatorium running for the winter.
Christmas Seals went national in 1908 with official sponsorship of the American Red Cross.
In 1980, the US postal service issued a stamp with Emily Bissell and the double-cross of the American Lung Association on them.
Now in its 108th year the Christmas Seal Campaign still raises millions to prevent, cure, and control lung disease.