All Things Wireless & Letterpress

All Things Wireless & Letterpress

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Commemorative Letterpress Christmas Seal.

Let's begin first with the concept of the "Christmas Seal".  So many folks today give me a blank stare when I talk about Christmas Seals.  What image must this conjure in their minds?  The concept dates to a day when there was a certain elegance to the written letter, a time when we were concerned with the aesthetics of the envelopes, the covers that we sent.  Sending a letter was a very personal and laborious effort at one time. While quite another subject for a later time, letter writing was something that reflected upon the writer.

For many years, postal systems carried labels that might call attention to certain charities and events.  For instance, the "Sanitary Fairs" during the American Civil War might call attention to certain war efforts conducted by ladies' groups to wrap bandages for troops in the field.  In Europe, "semi postals" were available to help fund organizations, or charities.  These were special stamps that would not only cover franking, but also earmark some of what you paid the postal clerk for these select stamps, for donation to the indicated charity.  In Belgium these stamps were marked something like "15 + 5".  You paid 15 centimes plus and extra five, for a total of 20 centimes.  Fifteen would cover the postage, and five would go to whatever charity the stamp was featuring in it's design.  The German National Socialists, for example, funded "Sorgen Kind", a children's charity for orphans, by the use of semi postals.

In 1904, the Danish postal authorities were authorized to sell special stamps for, and collect revenue for, a Christmas Charity.  These stamps had no postage franking value.  But you could adhere the stamp to the rear flap of the envelope, a sort of "seal", hearkening back to the days of the wax seal, to show the recipient of your letter that you supported this Christmas Charity.  These stamps were as authoritative looking as the regular postage stamps of Denmark, but were used to show donation to the Christmas Charity only.  They were also printed by government sponsorship, by the government printing agencies

During the time of the issuance of this first Danish Christmas seal, an American social worker with the National Red Cross from Wilmington, Delaware, USA was visiting Denmark, and spotted these seals in use.  The worker's  name was Emily Bissell.  Emily was working with the American Lung Association's arm of the National Red Cross,  at a time when "consumption", tuberculosis and various other serious lung conditions were claiming the lives of thousands of urban residences.  Each year the National Red Cross would raise funds for the care and treatment of these victims of lung diseases.  Emily thought of a way that she might employ this same fundraising technique.  
In the US, when it comes to the interaction between Government and charities, things are a bit different.  Especially at the dawn of the 20th century.  Private business may enter into contracts with the government, such as private printers printing the US Postal Stationery, but this was contract work, not fund raising. The Government printing offices could not be used to print private fund raising ephemera, unlike Europe.  The USPOD  (United States Post Office Department, which was then a government uniformed service, not the quasi-independent "service" it is today) could not be used to collect revenue for a private organization.  But still the idea of selling seals was appealing, especially if they enhanced the look envelope.

Emily Bissell designed the first seal herself, three years after she saw the Danish Seals of 1904.  The National Red Cross contracted Theordore Leonhardt & Son out of Philadelphia to print the very first Christmas Seals in the United States.  There were two versions.  The one I show at the top of the page, and the one shown here below.

The reason for the two different versions is interesting.  The first version went on sale before Christmas.  The second was issued to cover the lapse between Christmas Day and New Years Day, 1908.  Type Two was sold for use after Christmas, to cover those Happy New Year cards, as well.  Emily designed them both.  And for Theo Leonhardt & Son, well, they printed the seals for the next year too.  After that, Strohbridge Litho, also out of Philadelphia, picked up the task of printing.  Then it fell to Eureka, also in Philadelphia.  Christmas Seals for the first few years was a very local thing!

So, how were these seals promoted?   By direct mail to members and subscribers to their funding efforts, and through a local Delaware Valley Newspaper.  The Newspaper PSAs began when sales of the first seals, Type 1, began to lag just before Christmas, after a whopping twenty five dollars had been raised.  Emily went to the above mentioned Newspaper (I forget the name of it) for help to get the word out, and with the new design of Type 2, the Delaware Valley Chapter of the National Red Cross finished out the season raising Three Thousand Dollars!

Did the idea take?  Yes, it eventually went national.  The very next year, a Mr. Howard Pyle designed the second Seal for 1908-09, based on the original Bissell design, and the National Red Cross raised $135,000.00!!   The rest is history.

In time, the National Red Cross would become the American Red Cross, and by the end of World War One, The American Lung Association would become a separate entity, adopting the double-barred cross.  Funding raised by Christmas Seals to fight the "White Plague" (Tuberculosis) would escalate into the multiple millions per year.

In 2006, I began searching the web and asking around, such as I could, as to whether there would be some sort of 100th anniversary seal issued to commemorate the issuance of the first 1907 Emily Bissel Seal.  I was well aware of the history of the seals and as a philatelist myself and a Seal Collector.  I thought surely some design would happen.... but it did not seem as if it did.  None that ever came to my attention anyway.  At the time I was the 19th century printer at the Florida Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts, Barberville, Florida.  I had just rehabbed two of their letterpresses and was organizing their vintage printing exhibit when the thought occurred:  why not do something along the lines of creating such an issue ourselves?   Every year we had an event called "A Florida Christmas", and we had a functioning periodic Pioneer Settlement Post Office that could cancel mails at certain events.  The Post Office at Christmas Florida is a similar set up.  It is active only at certain specified times.

I did not want to do an exact copy of the Bissell design.  I wanted to base my commemorative design, however, off the original.  Just as Howard Pyle did for the '08 Seal.  Close enough to get the idea, yet different.

I did come quite close to the original holly leaves, berries and the red cross.  I used another font to carry the text, and then added a frame with the legend :"Commemorating One Hundred Years of Christmas Seals in the United States.   The design was then etched onto an 0.25" copper die, backed with hardwood, type high.  This was done by Owosso Graphics, gratis ( thanks again, guys! ). 

We printed these seals in souvenir sheets of 9, perforated and imperforated.  They were printed in brick red oil base, and process blue.  More red were printed than blue.  These were, in turn, used as souvenir sheets as a free gift for visiting our Settlement, issued both at the Post Office and at the Print Shop.  We did encourage donations to the American Lung Association, although we were, of course, not authorized to collect revenue.

While I had planned to issue these each year, on a different colour paper with different ink colours, than has not happened.   A total of 250 sheets were printed in red, and about 100 in blue.  Half were perforated, half were not.  These were issued in a special folder created for the event.  I have no idea how many were even kept, how many were used.  Probably not that many.  These were not gummed.  The user would have had to actually glue it on.  We did not think that folks would actually want to tear up a souvenir sheet to get at nine imperfectly perforated "primitives".

Our perforator was a Chicago Line Perforator, just like as was used in some European Countries in the 1850s, when they made the move away from cutting stamps with scissors or postal knives.  The presses we used were standard Platen style Letterpresses, Chandler & Price Old Style 8x12, one was made in 1890, the other in 1910.  Today, I have at my own shop a 1936 C&P and a 1965 Open Kluge 10x15.  

It's been a long time, ten years since I printed those Centennial Christmas Stamps.  I may take that die and print up a green version for this year.  If anyone is interested, that is.  It's a fair amount of work, and one thing I do not have any longer is a line perforator.  Who knows?  The year isn't over yet!

Here is the blue version.  The design is the same, it was printed from the same copper die.  These were also available perforated and imperforated ( collectors call them "perf" or "imperf".)

Here is a shot of the few sheets I have left.  Most of mine are imperforate, and a few line perforated specimens where the perforations are really not well centered.  This was something that plagued the printers of a lot of the European Issues of the mid 19th century as well.  It's very hard to register a single perforation line perfectly.  Let alone, er . . .  'imperf'ectly.  Heh..

This is the hardwood backed copper die used.  It is a one of a kind.  The copper is incredibly thick.  The image is acid etched in the same manner used by commercial platers back in the 1890s, although computer generated negatives are used now instead of the line-shot camera negatives that I knew as a lad in the industry.

And, for those totally unversed in "Seal Etiquette", the way you should used them is just as a wax seal on the center pointed flap of the envelope, or in the case of a post card, next to the stamp.  Some place it in the center top of a post card back.  Nobody is keeping notes, but as a collector, we do value seals that are tied with the stamp by the cancellation, if collecting as an entire, or un-ripped on an envelope, which is actually pretty rare to find.

Here is a properly placed Centennial Commemorative Seal:

I really like the old designs, and you know?  Emily Bissell did not see herself as an artist designer, she just wanted a pretty design, and this is what she came up with.  It is now Iconic, and really, for a Seasons Greeting, it's really hard to beat.

Now, were any of these early Christmas Seals ever printed by Letterpress?   Yes, indeed!  Eureka ran several years of what are listed as "Typographed" cards.  This is, in fact, Letterpress.  It is raised surface printing, one of the best methods of rendering fine detail, next to line engraving.  Most of the typographed seals were printed between 1910 and 1920.  I may be off a couple years, I can double check but it seems to me that it was around the War years and up into the 1920s that Letterpress was used.  By far, most seals were, and are, offset lithograph printed.

That's it for now, folks!  I thought you might like a little Christmas in July!   Hope it was of interest.  As a printer and philatelist, these things are quite interesting to me, anyway.  As if you hadn't noticed!


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