In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. Physicians were experiencing the first signs of success treating tuberculosis in special hospitals called sanitoriums, and one of those facilities had fallen on tough times. The tiny Delaware sanitorium would have to close its doors if $300 could not be raised to save it. One of its doctors explained the plight to his cousin, a volunteer named Emily Bissell. Bissell was a veteran fundraiser, and she soon came up with a plan based on one that had worked in Denmark: She would design and print special holiday seals and sell them at the post office for a penny each.
By the end of her holiday campaign (and after an endorsement by President Roosevelt), she and a large group of committed volunteers had raised ten times the goal and Christmas Seals® were born. That first year, the Christmas Seal’s campaign raised just over $3,000, which equates to nearly $89,000 in today’s figures.
The tradition continued and grew year after year through World War I, The Great Depression and World War II. As the American Lung Association's mission expanded to include research into other respiratory diseases, such as lung cancer, more people began to send Christmas Seals®, and as the American Lung Association stepped up to protect children and families from pollution and cigarette smoke in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, America continued its support each year by supporting the Christmas Seals tradition.
Today, the American Lung Association takes on more lung health issues than ever before. From important research on lung cancer, COVID-19 and asthma to the danger of poisons in air pollution and secondhand smoke, the American Lung Association’s crucial mission is still largely supported by Christmas Seals®.
Each year, millions observe the tradition of sealing holiday cards and packages with that year’s special seal. And each year, Christmas Seals® donations support the important mission of the American Lung Association, to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease.
A Personal Connection to the Christmas Seals
Louise was just 10 years old when she and her brother, Robert, were chosen by the American Lung Association to be the inspiration for one of their iconic Christmas Seals. This honor was bestowed on the siblings because they had just returned from an eight-month stint in a tuberculosis (TB) sanitorium, where they saw first-hand the devastation lung disease could have on the community.
At the time, Louise, her six siblings, parents and grandmother lived on a farm in New Jersey. It was her grandmother who first contracted TB and was sent to a sanitorium. Soon after, the children were tested with patch tests at school and, though both Louise and her brother had no symptoms, the tests came back positive. This required the family do a follow-up chest X-ray which showed a shadow on her lungs. “I remember it was about two weeks before Christmas, and I cried and cried because my father said he had to send us away,” Louise said.
Being so young, Louise remembers little of her time in the sanitorium, instead recalling the feeling of isolation. “Looking back, they were really great. I had a tutor so that I didn’t fall behind in my education. That was my main focus because my family was busy with the farm and couldn’t visit often. It was lonely because I came from such a large family, and I was alone for Christmas which was very heartbreaking,” Louise remembered.
Luckily, everyone in Louise’s family recovered and returned home. But the experience inspired her parents to get involved with the American Lung Association, the organization that is credited with finally bringing the TB epidemic to an end.
Years later, Louise got married and began receiving her own package of Christmas Seals. Her husband had worked in the Navy as a boiler technician in the base of a ship. Again, the American Lung Association's vision to rid the world of lung disease hit close to home when they found out that potential occupational exposure had caused him to develop COPD and pulmonary fibrosis. These progressive lung diseases were something that he struggled with for the rest of his life, until finally becoming 100% disabled because of his difficulty breathing. From that point on the Veteran’s Administration (VA) provided him with medication to stabilize his condition.
Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic presented a particular challenge for Louise and her husband. As so many others experienced in person visits were not available. “This meant he didn’t have his prescribed medication for about three weeks, and by the time he went back on it his breathing had gotten worse and he had developed other symptoms,” Louise explained.
At one point he had become so fatigued and uncomfortable that he asked to be taken to the hospital. This was still around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so hospitals were limiting who was allowed in the building. Louise was forced to drop her husband off and wait to hear from him via phone. “That night we talked on the phone for a while and I told him I would see him the next day. Unfortunately, he never made it home. His heart and lungs gave out,” Louise explained.
Before this loss, Louise had become an avid COVID-19 mask maker, using her sewing expertise to help those in her community. "My grandkids encouraged me to start making face masks and after a while I couldn't keep up with the demand! My husband used to help me a lot by sitting with me and cutting out material and such.” So far, Louise believes she has made about 3,600 face masks, about half of which she has donated to local churches, hospitals, schools, and charities. “I'm still doing them off and on, but just like a couple here and there if someone asks,” she said.
But with the holiday season fast approaching, she has returned to the cause that has been dear to her heart for the past 51 years. “Christmas Seals have become so much more now. I look forward to the stamps each year and putting them on the backs of Christmas cards. I usually put a two of them at a time. Whatever leftovers I have I share with friends and relatives. I hope it encourages them to get involved,” Louise said.
“It makes me feel hopeful knowing that there are people out there working hard to find cures for other devastating lung diseases like COPD and pulmonary fibrosis. I mean the Lung Association found a cure for TB all those years ago. So, why not others? That is a mission I will always support.”
For more information, please visit Christmas Seals | American Lung Association