Ask a Librarian

Public Health and Christmas Seals

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant
You know I never pass up an opportunity to scan something.
We received an image request early this week that sent me scurrying off to look into Institutional Collection 34, the San Jacinto Lung Association[1], a collection with which I had never before had occasion to work.  Oh, my.  It was full of scrapbooks!  The client was not completely sure which images were needed so I took a lot of photographs to show what kind of material we had (the books are too large to scan without an army of help to position them).  The bulk of the items in the scrapbooks were related to Christmas Seals[2].
Christmas Seals began in the first decade of the twentieth century[3] as a fund-raiser and awareness campaign against pulmonary tuberculosis[4], which was, at the time, a major public health concern worldwide.  It is still a serious problem in developing countries, although it has become fairly uncommon in the West[5].  The idea was that you bought and resold the seals–in the same manner as Girl Scout cookies and marching-band chocolate bars–and stuck them on your letters.  Everyone sends more mail at Christmas, right?  The money from the seals went to support research and treatment, and seeing the seals on envelopes was meant to help publicize the issue.
You can still buy Christmas Seals today, to fund research in lung cancer and asthma.
On a tangent: Christmas Seals are what philatelists call “cinderella stamps“[6], meaning that they are stamp-like in format and appearance but have no value as postage.
Reduction of the tuberculosis rate in the United States, though, has come swiftly and recently.  Until the discovery of antibiotics in the mid-1940’s[6], there was little doctors could do medicinally.  Patients were rested and fed in the hopes that their bodies would fight off the infection[7].
Here are parts 1 and 2[8] of a 1930 newsreel about tuberculosis treatment in sanitaria (these are from Los Angeles, but they’re still interesting).
Tuberculosis was also a popular subject for blues[9] and early country musicians[10].  That could be an entire blog entry on its own.
Once the technology became available, and became portable enough, many cities instituted mobile chest x-ray buses so that as many people as possible could be diagnosed early and treated.  This one is from Wharton County.  The bus is a 1946 or 1947 Chevrolet, and it was probably new when the picture was taken:

Wharton County mobile x-ray unit

Here is a similar bus, in Seattle, Washington, in the 1950’s[12]; one from Atlanta[13] (the citation estimates 1945, although the truck appears to be a just-barely-postwar COE [cab-over-engine], possibly a 1946 Ford[14]); and a fleet[15] of them from Tacoma, Washington, 1956.
Papers in Houston (and, I assume, elsewhere) ran a series of cartoons with tuberculosis facts.  This one is from 1953:

Did You Know?

Christmas Seals, specifically, seem to have made occasional product-placement type appearances in regular cartoons.  The story line of this “Rex Morgan, M.D.” from 1952 has nothing to do with tuberculosis, but there is a big Christmas Seal poster in the last frame:

Rex Morgan, M.D.

Christmas Seals had their own public service announcements (you can see some on YouTube)[16], hosted by celebrities.  Being famous wasn’t insurance: Tuberculosis could count Scarlett O’Hara herself–Vivien Leigh[17]–amongst its high-profile victims.
Because they’re too good to leave out, we’ll finish with a series of magazine ads featuring enlarged versions of annual Seal designs:
I think 1947 might be my favorite.  I’d frame that and hang it on my wall, except that the word “TUBERCULOSIS” across the top in great, big, letters is kind of a mood-killer.
1949 went modern:


1951 featured a classic Santa Claus:

1952 is a very warm, festive, red:

1953 seems to have been popular, at least with whoever collected items for the scrapbooks.  There were lots and lots of versions of the little caroler:

I kind of like 1956, too.  Very sweet.

[1] San Jacinto Lung Association, at the John P. McGovern Historical Collections and Research Center, Texas Medical Center Library.
[2] Christmas Seals, at the American Lung Association.
[3] Christmas Seals, at Wikipedia.
[4] Pulmonary tuberculosis, at Baylor College of Medicine Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology.
[5] History of Tuberculosis, at Wikipedia.
[6] Alphabetilately.
[7] Saskatchewan Lung Association.
[8] History of Tuberculosis, at Wikipedia.
[9] National Tuberculosis Association, on YouTube.
[10] Houston native Victoria Spivey, on YouTube.
[11] Jimmie Rodgers, on YouTube.
[12] History of Public Health (Tuberculosis), King County, Washington.
[13] Atlanta History Center.
[14] 1946 Ford COE on Flickr/Bob Atwood.
[15] Tacoma Public Library.
[16] Christmas Seals public service announcements, on YouTube.
[17] Vivien Leigh, on Wikipedia.