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Seals Save the Sanitorium

Emily Bissell's 1907 Christmas Seal Stamps

In 1905 tuberculosis (TB) killed four times as many people nationwide as typhoid fever. It was more lethal than diphtheria. 56,770 Americans died from it that year, the highest rate of death for any one disease. In Wilmington, DE about 150-200 people died from it annually.

There was a tremendous amount of misinformation about the causes of TB, also known then as ‘consumption’.

“The incipient cause of all consumption is exposure to drafts or cold,” insisted a Letters to the Editor contributor in the Evening Journal [Wilmington]. “No amount of germ destroying will overcome this.” Another article in that newspaper reported, without explanation, that “45% of lithographers die of tuberculosis.”

Wilmington newspaper articles regularly reported high numbers of TB deaths from both prisons and workhouses (the latter housed citizens who couldn’t support themselves). This added a class prejudice against the disease that slowed middle class public support to eradicate it.

Delaware doctors were clear that raw milk could be a potential source of TB. Louis Pasteur, after all, had developed his process of applying low heat to milk to kill pathogens decades before. But a cure remained elusive. Penicillin was still 23 years away from being discovered.

In the summer of 1906 Wilmington’s medical community formed an Anti-Tuberculosis Society (ATS) to rally the public. Society members strongly felt the best way to treat TB was to isolate sufferers from dense populations, and give them maximum exposure to fresh air, at all seasons, in all temperatures.

With that goal in mind, the ATS in June 1907 began building ‘shacks’ in Brandywine Hundred “along Jessup’s Road,” with the initial goal of accommodating 10 patients.

Right from the start it divided its services by ability to pay. “Patients paying seven dollars or less per week will be known as ward patients,” stated the ATS board of directors. “Those paying more than seven dollars per week will be known as private patients, and may be attended by any physician who is in good standing in one of the state medical societies.”

Wilmington’s city council had not yet declared TB a public health crisis, though the Board of Health begged it to do so. Therefore the Brandywine Shacks relied entirely on private donations.

Emily Bissell / Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia
Emily Bissell / Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia

“On this account the shacks will have to be constructed of a cheaper material and in a less substantial manner than those first planned,” conceded the ATS Board.

This set the tone heard all throughout the summer of 1907. “We’ll try the sanatorium idea for a year,” warned the Board. “If at the end of that time the people of this city and State do not show a more generous disposition towards the movement and support the society by larger contributions, we will abandon the undertaking.”

The local branch of a group called the International Sunshine Society donated some furnishings odds & ends to the shacks in July. No other organizations stepped forward to help, though. The Sunshiners were perceived by the public as just a bit too loopy, not quite mainstream.

By month’s end, the shacks were already full, the sanatorium needed another building, and the waiting list was bursting with applications. The Board pondered the idea of taking in patients for free.

In late September the Board announced that the Shacks would stay open “at least 2 or 3 months longer,” despite the fact that they had not been properly winterized when first built.

The ATS decides to hold a bake sale at the end of October to help defray costs. Of course, it’s not enough.

Then, a breakthrough. In mid-November, The Morning News reported that “at the annual meeting of the Delaware Branch of the American National Red Cross Society, it was decided to have this society in Delaware co-operate with the Anti-Tuberculosis Society.” The Red Cross, in turn, sought out the Women’s State Federation of Clubs to get involved in keeping the sanatorium afloat.

This article is the first time the public learns about Emily Bissell, who was the Red Cross secretary that year. Her cousin Dr. John Wales was director of the sanatorium, and his desperate plea for help in a letter to her motivated Bissell to push for her chapter’s involvement.

The Red Cross board floated the idea of a series of lectures on “Consumption”, or maybe a concert, to raise awareness, and more importantly, money, for the sanatorium.

Bissell, though, had heard of an idea in Denmark in which people attached a special stamp to their mail, the proceeds of which would go to fight TB, and decided to introduce the same idea to the Red Cross campaign.

She felt the Red Cross/Women’s Federation push could probably raise $300 or so for the sanitorium. Bissell’s fresh insight was to convince Wilmington post offices to sell the Red Cross Christmas Seal stamp for 1 cent, so that even the poorest people could help in the fight against TB.

Stamp sales ended up raising over $3,000 in the Wilmington area alone. The campaign went national the following year. Illustrator and fellow Wilmington native Howard Pyle volunteered to design the seal. Over $100,000 was raised the second year. Emily Bissell would devote the rest of her life to the anti-tuberculosis and Christmas Seal movement. In 1980, she was honored with her own United States postage stamp.

Emily Bissell buying the first Seal at the Wilmington post office, 7 December 1907
Emily Bissell buying the first Seal at the Wilmington post office, 7 December 1907

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