The Story of the Red Kettle

We’re officially in the Christmas season, and chances are you’ve seen or will soon see our Salvation Army Red Kettles and bell ringers while you’re out and about.

Our Red Kettles have become a holiday icon – just ask anybody about them and they’ll know what you’re talking about. But do you know how this tradition started?

Today I thought it would be helpful to share the history of the Kettle to give you a deeper understanding of the inspiration behind this century-old tradition. Here goes:

Portrait of Captain Joseph McFee.

In San Francisco during December of  1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner to the area’s poor,  but he had no way to pay for all that food from his own pocket. So the question remained, how would he do it?

His thoughts went back to his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England.  On the Stage Landing he saw a large iron kettle called “Simpson’s pot” into which passers-by dropped charitable donations.

The next day he received permission to place a similar kettle at the Oakland ferry landing.  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 it he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” Word spread of his endeavor and he quickly raised the funds to feed 1,000 of the city’s poorest individuals on Christmas day! But it didn’t end it there.

Kettles soon appeared in New York City and along the West Coast.

By 1985 the kettle was used in 30 Salvation Army locations along the West Coast, and shortly after they spread to the East Coast. In 1897, the kettle fundraising campaign in Boston and other cities helped pay for 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.

Thus, Captain McFee launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world.

Today, donations raised through our Christmas Red Kettle Campaign fund a vast range of Salvation Army programs and services that serve 30 million Americans year round.

So remember, when you’re dropping a donation in to a Red Kettle, you’re continuing a long standing tradition, but most importantly, you’re making it possible for The Salvation Army to continue to serve the those most in need.