Before the invention of antibiotics in the 1940s, tuberculosis (TB) was one of the world's deadliest killers. Thousands of Americans died annually from the spread of this airborne disease. No class, ethnic group or region of the country was immune. Though the specific bacteria that carried the disease had been discovered in 1882, the treatments available to patients at the time were relatively primitive. Rest, proper nutrition and "clean" air at sanatoriums or special hospitals located in rural areas were the only treatments known to work.
The idea of using Christmas Seals to combat tuberculosis began with Danish postal clerk Einar Holbell in 1904. Stamps could be sold for a penny each and the proceeds would go to support the care of tuberculosis patients. By 1907 the idea had spread to the United States through an article written by Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis in the popular magazine, <i>The Outlook</i>. Emily Bissell, secretary of the Delaware Chapter of the American Red Cross, seized upon
the idea to help a struggling tuberculosis sanatorium in Delaware. Later, the American Red Cross further developed the idea as an annual, nationwide campaign, enlisting the talents of many of this nation's best-known artists and illustrators.
The American Lung Association continues to sell Christmas Seals annually and it remains a vital source of revenue for their work against lung diseases. Though the focus of the campaign has shifted from tuberculosis to lung diseases like asthma, and the greeting inscribed on the seal no longer reads "Merry Christmas" but "Season's Greetings," the ultimate aim of the program remains the same—compassion and help for those who are afflicted.