The designer and filmmaker Niko Courtelis collects Christmas Seals, those little stamps issued in 1907 to raise awareness and funds for the cure of tuberculosis. Emily Bissell, a veteran fundraiser, came up with a plan to design and print special holiday seals and sell them at the post office for a penny each. The American Lung Association continues to produce the seals. The ALA’s logo is a Cross of Lorraine, suggested by Dr. Gilbert Sersiron in 1902 as a symbol for the “crusade” against tuberculosis. Originally, it was the coat of arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, who lead the first crusade and was ruler of Jerusalem after its capture in 1099.
At this time of holiday giving, these stamps are a reminder that promotion of this kind can both inform and provide an aesthetic bonus. I asked Courtelis what that bonus is. (The vintage stamps below are from Courtelis’s collection.)
What started your collection of Christmas Seals?
I first collected stamps as a kid, then as a designer became interested in the graphics, typography, and printing of stamps. That led to a full-blown philatelic obsession . . . the Christmas Seals are a part of that.
Do you know who conceived the seals?
The Christmas Seals were conceived in 1907 by a Red Cross worker named Emily Bissel. At the time, tuberculosis (TB) was the the leading cause of death in the U.S. Emily’s idea was based on a fundraising seal she’d heard about done by the Danish Post Office a year earlier. She designed the first seal herself, and convinced the illustrator Howard Pyle to design it the following year, when they printed seven million. They’re referred to as “bullets in the fight against tuberculosis.”
Was there any TB or lung promotion prior to this?
I’m not sure. If there was, it wasn’t organized on a regional or national level. The seals raised money, awareness and created a fundraising entity that exists to this day, as part of the American Lung Association.
How successful are these in raising money and awareness?
The success was instant. Bissell hoped to raise $300 to prevent a Delaware tuberculosis hospital (sanitorium) from closing, by selling the seals at one penny each. She raised $3,000, saved the TB hospital, and created a fundraising entity. Several years later, they were printing millions of the seals. Ultimately, her seals contributed to the eradication of tuberculosis.
What is your favorite seal?
The context is what I find really interesting—how the message, imagery, illustration, and typography change from year to year, and how these elements tell us about what was happening at the time. The post-WWI, 1918 design (Charles A. Winter) showing Liberty has such gravity, as does the elegant Rockwell Kent design from 1939, at the beginning of WWII. Compare those to the joy of the postwar mailman of 1944 (Spence Wildey). My favorite is the design of the 1936 seal (Walter I. Sasse; top image and below, far right), when you see a visible paradigm shift. It was printed in two color variations, and the fours corners of the sheet featured a seal with a typographic slogan.
For holiday gift ideas for designers, check out our guide to this weekend’s closeout design sale.