By Ginny A. Roth ~
The name Emily Bissell may not strike a chord with most people, but you can thank her for introducing colorful and festive Christmas Seals to the United States that have been produced every year since 1907. This Christmas Seal from 1937 marked the 30th year that the seals were produced, first by the American Red Cross until 1919, and then by the National Tuberculosis Association (NTA). The double-barred Cross of Lorraine, as seen in the seals above, was adopted as the official emblem of the anti-tuberculosis movement in 1906 and first appeared on a Christmas Seal in 1920 after the NTA registered the emblem in the United States Patent Office.
Tuberculosis was widespread and the leading cause of death in the United States in the early 20th century. Sanatoriums were ubiquitous across the country where physicians were treating patients with the deadly disease. One particular sanatorium in Wilmington, Delware, which was struggling financially to keep its doors open, was served by a doctor who appealed to Bissell, an active fundraiser and leader in the American Red Cross, to raise $300 for the sanatorium. With inspiration from a tuberculosis campaign in Denmark which raised money to fight the disease using Christmas Seals in 1904, Bissell created the first Red Cross Christmas Seal to be sold at post offices for one penny each. Her campaign raised $3,000, 10 times the goal. Bissell dedicated the remainder of her life to the anti-tuberculosis movement and promoting Christmas Seals.
The NTA changed its name to the American Lung Association in 1973 and expanded its mission to include lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. The organization is still largely funded by the Christmas Seal campaign.
See more Christmas Seal posters from the historical collection in the NLM Digital Collections.
The National Museum of Health & Medicine has a good collection of the seals in their stamp collection.
Tuberculosis was known as the ” white disease ” because of its chronic nature it commonly resulted in anaemia which produced pallor or whiteness hence its eponymous name. There was no effective treatment until Selman Waksman of Rutgers University ( my alma mater ) discovered streptomycin. He received a Noble prize for this achievement . It was a miraculous discovery patients were actually being cured of the dread disease, this had never before happened. Unfortunately after only several months resistant strains began emerging. Then more antibiotics and more resistance until today there are multi drug resistant, even totally drug resistant strains.