Stamp Out Tuberculosis

Why is this merry fellow advertising about tuberculosis? He’s on a 1924 poster for that year’s “Christmas seal,” a stamp-like thing that folks could buy to stick on their mail during the winter holidays. It wasn’t a postage stamp; you still had to buy that separately. It was entirely decorative, but the proceeds went to tuberculosis treatment and research centers.

You may have even seen some Christmas seals yourself. The American Lung Association has sold them every year since at least 1920, to fund their activities into the treatment and prevention of lung cancer, asthma and other lung diseases. The first Christmas seals, however, were all about tuberculosis.

At the time of this advertisement, tuberculosis was the number-one cause of death by disease in industrialized nations. Seventy to 90 percent of city dwellers in Europe and North America carried the tuberculosis bacterium, according to the Harvard University Library. Eighty percent of those who developed active disease would die from it. Some of the world’s first modern public health campaigns aimed at preventing tuberculosis.

Christmas seals of the time, just like Christmas seals now, generally showed festive scenes and offered greetings like “Merry Christmas,” “Health Greetings,” or something similar. They didn’t talk about tuberculosis, but the ads for them did, creating strange juxtapositions of Santa Claus and other cheerful characters alongside reminders of a deadly disease. The posters are beautifully done and are a fun glimpse into the history of medicine. You can see many of them at the U.S.’ National Library of Medicine’s historical image database. You can also see images of the seals themselves via the American Lung Association.

Happy holidays and good health to you from Popular Science.