Before the invention of antibiotics in the 1940s, tuberculosis was one of the world's deadliest killers. Thousands of Americans died annually from the spread of this airborne disease. Though the specific bacteria that carried the disease was 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 in Denmark in 1904.Stamps could be sold for a penny each and the proceeds would go to support the care of tuberculosis patients. In 1907, the Christmas Seal idea reached the United States and American Red Cross leader Emily Bissell designed the first Red Cross Christmas Seal. Bissell hoped the stamps could be sold to raise funds for an experimental tuberculosis (TB) hospital in Wilmington, Delaware.
The stamps were a success—the first supply sold out in two days. The Red Cross developed the idea as an annual, nationwide campaign, enlisting the talents of many of this nation's best-known artists and illustrators to design the beautiful stamps.
The Red Cross participated in the Christmas Seal program for the next 12 years, raising more than $15 million to combat tuberculosis, one of the world’s deadliest killers at the time.
In 1919 the program was taken over by the National Tuberculosis Association. Its successor, 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.