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The Origin of The Salvation Army Red Kettle

Aside from “Ho, ho, ho!” and several songs by Perry Como, perhaps no other sound says Christmas more than the ring of a Salvation Army bell.

Salvation Army kettle historyThe Red Kettle has been an American icon for nearly 125 years.  From early November to Christmas Eve, the ubiquitous buckets can be found outside thousands of storefronts in small towns and big cities across the country. They can even be found on your TV, appearing in dozens of movies.

Red Kettles raise millions for Salvation Army programs that provide food, shelter, rehabilitation, disaster relief, and much more for people and families in crisis.  Nationwide, kettles raised almost $136 million last year.

Indeed, Red Kettles are a Christmas force.  But have you ever wondered who started the Red Kettle tradition, where, and why?  Wonder no more.  Below is a short history of the Salvation Army Red Kettle, one of the most timeless and successful Christmas fundraising tools of all time.

In December 1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was distraught because so many poor individuals in San Francisco were going hungry.  During the holiday season, he resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for the destitute and poverty-stricken.  But how would he pay for the food?  As he went about his daily tasks, the question stayed in his mind.  His thoughts wondered back to his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England.  On the Stage Landing he saw a large pot, called “Simpson’s pot” into which passers-by tossed a coin or two to help the poor.

RK3On the next morning, he secured permission from the authorities to place a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing, at the foot of Market Street.  No time was lost in securing the pot and placing it in a conspicuous position, so that it could be seen by all those going to and from the ferry boats.  Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.”  Thus, Captain Joseph McFee launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world.

By Christmas, 1895, the kettle was used in 30 Salvation Army locations in various sections of the West Coast area.  The Sacramento Bee of that year carried a description of the Army’s Christmas activities and mentioned the contributions to street corner kettles.  Shortly afterward, two young Salvation Army officers who had been instrumental in the original use of the kettle, William A. McIntyre and N.J. Lewis, were transferred to the East.  They took with them the idea of the Christmas kettle.  In 1897, McIntyre prepared his Christmas plans for Boston around the kettle, but his fellow officers refused to cooperate for fear of “making spectacles of themselves.”  So McIntyre, his wife and sister set up three kettles at the Washington Street thoroughfare in the heart of the city.  That year the kettle effort in Boston and other locations nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.

In 1898, the New York World hailed The Salvation Army kettles as “the newest and most novel device for collecting money.”  The newspaper also observed, “There is a man in charge to see that contributions are not stolen.”  In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided funds for the first mammoth sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years.  Today, donations to Salvation Army kettles at Christmas time support holiday meals for homeless and needy families, but also help The Salvation Army serve 30 million people through myriad of social services all year long.

RK2Kettles can now be found and donated to in many foreign countries such as Korea, Japan, and Chile, and in many European countries and Australia.  Everywhere, public contributions to the kettles enable The Salvation Army to bring the spirit of Christmas to those who would otherwise be forgotten all year long – to the aged and lonely, the ill, the inmates of jails and other institutions, the poor and unfortunate.  In the United States, kettles at Thanksgiving and Christmas, although changed since the first utilitarian cauldron set up in San Francisco, help make it possible for The Salvation Army to do the most good possible for 30 million people each year.

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