Don’t let anyone kid you. Fake news is an old tradition—and everyone loves it.
Take, for instance, Emily Bissell’s idea to raise money for tuberculosis treatment in 1907. Her Christmas Seals sold modestly, but needed a large burst of publicity to bring in needed cash. So Bissell found a newspaper editor who recognized the promotional potential of a feel-good cause that all of his readers could participate in.
“Tell Miss Bissell the North American is hers for the holidays,” E. A. Van Valkenburg, editor-in-chief of the influential Philadelphia newspaper, told one of his columnists. “Drop what you’re doing and give this your whole time. Take all the space you need. Ask her to send us 50,000 (Christmas Seals) by tomorrow.”
At that moment, Bissell’s entire inventory consisted of only 4,000 Christmas Seals, which she hoped to sell for a penny each. To supply 50,000, she had to scramble. But she got it done and, in the end, raised $3,000—10 times the original goal.
A lifelong Wilmingtonian, Emily Perkins Bissell (1861-1948) was the daughter of a prominent family who believed in volunteerism. As a young woman, she founded the city’s first public kindergarten and joined a group lobbying for child-labor laws. In 1883, she founded the Italian Neighborhood House to assist new immigrants with Americanization, literacy, housing and employment. It survives as the West End Neighborhood House.
In 1907, knowing of Bissell’s connections, her cousin John Wales, M.D., came to her for help. Wales operated a small TB “shack”—a sort of open-air hospital—but was almost out of money.
Now rare, TB—or consumption—is an infectious disease of the lungs that was once a major killer. Before development of an effective vaccine in the 1920s, the primary treatment was fresh air and sunshine. In Delaware, in 1904, the fledgling Delaware Anti-Tuberculosis Society raised $4,000 to open such a facility near what is now Bellevue State Park. When NIMBY neighbors objected, Alfred I. du Pont, creator of the splendid Nemours estate, offered the use of his property near the Brandywine.
“We struggled along those first years, always fighting against public apathy and financial stringency,” Wales recalled in 1932. “I well remember one cold morning the patron calling me up on the phone to tell me there was not enough food for the patients and no money to buy any.”
Challenged to “see what you can do,” Bissell recalled reading of a Danish program that sold small lick-and-stick stamps—Christmas Seals—that people put on their holiday mail. Two friends contributed $20 each to underwrite the effort, and a printer did the job on credit.
The DuPont Co. handled publicity and advertising. Women’s clubs, shopkeepers and local newspapers showed interest. The Wilmington post office allowed Bissell to sell her stamps in its corridor. On Dec. 7, 1907, the first day of sales produced $25.
Bissell, however, worried that sales in little Wilmington would be insufficient to reach her goal of $300. She got on the train to Philadelphia, where the Sunday editor at the North American threw her out of his office. TB, he said, was a terrible disease, so why should he spoil everyone’s fun by tying it to a beloved holiday?
Next, Bissell poked her head into the office of columnist Leigh Hodges to say she “liked his writing.” The writer absorbed the compliment and asked if there was anything he could do for her. Bissell had some ideas.
Remember that TB was an ancient disease. Signs of it are recognizable in Egyptian mummies. It was generally considered incurable, a likely death sentence. Physicians such as Wales who said otherwise were mocked. Its treatment was not seen as urgent. TB was not news.
Still, Hodges was intrigued, then excited. It was the holidays, and newspapers needed human-interest stories to bring readers. Sob stories—stricken children! dying mothers!—were irresistible.
Hodges took a sheet of Bissell’s stamps and slammed them on his editor’s desk.
“Here’s a way to wipe out tuberculosis!” he exclaimed.
“What the hell do you mean?” replied Van Valkenburg.
“Just that! Look at them: a penny apiece; within everyone’s reach,” replied Hodges. “Think how they’ll carry the news of what people can do for themselves. What a headline: Stamp out tuberculosis!”
Van Valkenburg thought for a moment of the weepy stories waiting to be written and of the touched masses waiting to push forward their pennies. Soon, Bissell had all the fake news she wanted.
Not fake to all, of course. On the first day of sales in Philadelphia, Hodges wrote of a small boy who approached a counter he couldn’t see over and handed up a penny: “Gimme one,” he said. “Me sister’s got it.”