Philanthropy by the Rest of Us
By OLIVIER ZUNZ
CHRISTMAS SEALS, first sold 104 years ago in a Delaware post office, transformed the treatment and control of tuberculosis, one of the most feared killers of the age.
Just as important, they produced a revolution in philanthropy. At that time, the 1 percent of the late Gilded Age, men with names like Carnegie and Rockefeller, were creating major new philanthropic institutions. Christmas Seals, in a way, was the response from the other 99 percent: by marketing something as inexpensive as a stamp and using the proceeds to attack a major disease, the founders of the Christmas Seals program demonstrated the collective power of the American public.
The idea reached the United States by chance. The Danish-born immigrant Jacob Riis, well known as a pioneer photographer of tenement life, had already seen six of his brothers die of tuberculosis by 1904 when he received a Christmas letter from Copenhagen.
In addition to the traditional postage stamp, it bore a peculiar seal, the brainchild of a Danish postal clerk, Einar Holboll. Rather than rely on a few deep pockets to pay for a new hospital for children with tuberculosis, he sold the seals for two ore (there are 100 ore in a Danish krone) each. Patrons placed the seals alongside regular stamps to raise awareness of the campaign.
Three years later, Riis reported the story of this highly successful “penny subscription” in the magazine The Outlook, urging its duplication in the United States. Riis pointed to the fact that “no millionaire” had yet come forth “to endow” the fight against tuberculosis in America, and went on to say that “no millionaire” was “wanted,” that the job would be “far better done by the people themselves.”
Emily Bissell, a member of The Outlook’s editorial board and an active fund-raiser for the Red Cross, took him up on the suggestion as a way to support a tuberculosis sanitarium near Wilmington, Del. She borrowed money from friends to print the seals, persuaded the Wilmington postmaster to sell them in the post office lobby, and sold the first Christmas Seals in December 1907. Aided by an adroit publicity campaign, she raised $3,000 that first year, 10 times her original goal.
It was such a success that the next year the Red Cross made the seals available in post offices around the country, packaged with the message, “These stamps do not carry any kind of mail but any kind of mail will carry them.” That year, Christmas Seals raised $135,000; by 1916, they raised $1 million, all through purchases of less than $1.
The Christmas Seals campaign demonstrated the philanthropic power of the grass roots. It not only raised money, but called attention to tuberculosis. In a few years, the number of volunteers for the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis soared to 500,000 from 5,000. In 1919, three million child “crusaders” served in the Modern Health Crusade to raise awareness of the disease.
Equally important, this people’s philanthropy mobilized public health officials, attracted the attention of politicians — President Theodore Roosevelt publicly endorsed Christmas Seals — and even mobilized the 1 percent. The Rockefeller International Health Commission joined the fight against tuberculosis during World War I.
Mass philanthropy took off in a wide variety of fields. Community chests sprang up in every major city, and the Red Cross took volunteerism and grass-roots philanthropy to new levels to support the troops abroad. By the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the March of Dimes, volunteers knew how to canvass entire populations in large and small cities alike. Today, it is possible for practically every citizen willing to spend a little money to respond directly and almost instantly to world emergencies simply by sitting down at a computer or picking up a cellphone.
At the same time, mass philanthropy has become increasingly news-driven, as givers respond to earthquakes and tsunamis with an outpouring of resources but then lose interest as these disasters move off the front page. During the holiday season, our phones ring incessantly with appeals from scores of nonprofits. That we give to some of them is critical for our society. But the new ease with which we can transfer money does little to deepen the philanthropic spirit or generate long-term commitments.
What’s missing is both the commonality and intensity of purpose displayed by the original Christmas Seals campaign. Interestingly, these are two qualities exhibited by Occupy Wall Street, a movement that seems unable to harness its members’ sense of outrage to purposeful action.
It might be worthwhile for all those who sympathize with the occupiers of Zuccotti Park and other plazas and squares around the country to learn from the example of the Christmas Seals campaign. We have no shortage of urgent causes that will benefit from the energy of the grass roots. The seals campaign showed that the 99 percent, even when feeling disenfranchised, are hardly powerless to repair the safety net — and even influence the actions of the 1 percent.
Olivier Zunz, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Philanthropy in America: A History.”