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A History of Christmas Seals in Canada


Tuberculosis in Canada

The history of Christmas Seals is inextricably linked to the history of tuberculosis in Canada and the origins of the Canadian Lung Association. Before we were the Canadian Lung Association, we were the Canadian Association for Prevention of Consumption and Other Forms of Tuberculosis, founded in Ottawa in 1900. In fact, the double-barred red cross of Lorraine, which has been synonymous with lung associations worldwide, was identified as the official emblem of TB associations around the world three years later.

Why did Canada need a national TB association? TB was a major public health concern in Canada in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Often called “consumption”, TB was highly contagious and spread quickly in the crowded, unsanitary conditions that were prevalent at the time.

TB treatment was for the wealthy

Treatment for TB often involved a stay (sometimes up to two years) in a sanatorium. These were hospitals built specifically to isolate TB patients and provide them with rest, good food, fresh air and rehabilitation. Historically, tuberculosis associations were responsible for the building of sanatoria and the organizing and financing of clinics and nursing services. The first sanatorium was built in Canada in 1897, well before the days of socialized medicine; treatment in a sanatorium was, at first, only an option for the wealthy.

Their lack of access to things like healthy food, pasteurized milk (bovine TB could be transmitted to humans) and accommodations that weren’t crowded, unhygienic and unventilated meant that TB disproportionately affected working-class Canadians. Donations were required to help pay for TB treatment and prevention for those who couldn’t afford it. This led to the creation of Christmas Seals.

The origins of Christmas Seals

Christmas Seals are truly a global tradition: the original idea came from a postman in Denmark. Christmas Seals debuted in Copenhagen in 1904 and raised a whopping $20,000 to fight TB n their first year. Seals reached the US in 1907, when American Red Cross employee Emily Bissell was asked by her physician cousin to raise the $300 needed to keep the local sanatorium operating. Bissell had read an article about the Danish campaign and adopted the idea herself. She would eventually raise ten times her goal by the end of the 1907 campaign.

Christmas Seals come to Canada

Seals were first created in Canada in 1908. In its first year, the Canadian campaign raised $7,358.65 (the equivalent of almost $200,000 today). Originally, Seals were used to raise money to build and operate sanatoriums. By 1938 there were 61 sanatoria with close to 9000 beds across the country. Funds were also used for prevention. Dispensaries could provide food, clothing, sputum boxes and medicine free of charge, thanks to generous donations from the public. Funds raised also supported the use of chest x-rays and tuberculin tests.

“Collapse therapy” to treat TB become more common by the 1920s. By the 1950s, the antibiotic streptomycin (only discovered in 1944) was provided free of change and widely used in Canada to treat TB. The last Canadian sanatorium closed in the 1970s.

Christmas Seals of today and tomorrow

Today, there are more than 100 different lung associations around the world that raise funds through Christmas Seals campaigns. The Canadian Lung Association continues the tradition each year. Funds raised support lung health research and programs and services for Canadians living with lung disease.

Christmas Seals have become a collector’s item among philatelists and the general public alike. 2024 marks the global 100th anniversary of Christmas Seals, so look forward to more Seals history and a look at some notable Seals designs of the past!