When social worker Emily Bissell set out 87 years ago to sell specially designed Christmas stamps for a penny apiece, she had a larger cause in mind than sprucing up the mail.

The first stamp's message was simple enough: "Merry Christmas." It raised $3,000, and she used the money to keep open a tuberculosis sanitarium along the Brandywine River.That was the beginning of Christmas Seals - those colorful stamps that once were the American Lung Association's main source of contributions. Bissell called the stamps "the biggest little thing in the world."

Bissell's success caught the notice of the American Red Cross. The next Christmas, in 1908, it backed a national Christmas Seals campaign that netted $135,000. By 1917, the campaign hit the $1 million mark.

As the tuberculosis threat diminished over the years, the popularity of the seasonal stamps has waned. Christmas Seal donations now make up about a quarter of the $120 million the American Lung Association raises annually.

The lung association took over responsibility for Christmas Seals in 1920, when the organization was known as the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis.

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Then, as now, the most faithful Christmas Seal users are the people who lived through the so-called "white plague," when tuberculosis was a leading killer, said Joseph Bergen, deputy managing director of the New York-based American Lung Association.

Dorothy Pecora of Hockessin remembers selling Christmas Seals as a school project while growing up on a farm near Circleville, Ohio, in the 1920s.

She and her husband, Dr. David Pecora, used to work with TB patients at a hospital in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and have collected every type of Christmas Seal issued, including the first.

These days, the American Lung Association relies more on direct mailings to raise money. The organization sent solicitations to about 40 million households this year, Bergen said.

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