In December 1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee resolved to provide Christmas dinner to San Francisco’s poor, but the question of how to pay for the food stayed in his mind. He recalled his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England; there was a large pot on the landing where the boats came in, into which passersby threw in charitable donations.
Joseph got permission to place a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing, at the foot of Market Street. It was placed in a conspicuous position and launched a tradition that has spread globally.
By Christmas 1895, kettles had spread across much of the West Coast. Two Salvation Army officers who had been part of the original kettle launch, William A. McIntyre and N.J. Lewis, were transferred east and took the kettle idea with them. In 1897, McIntyre and his family set up three kettles in the heart of Boston. That year the kettles in Boston and locations nationwide provided 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.
In 1898, the New York World called The Salvation Army kettles “the newest and most novel device for collecting money. 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 great sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years.
Today, donations to The Salvation Army Christmas kettles help 4.5 million people during Thanksgiving and Christmas, and nearly 30 million people are served nationwide through shelters, after-school programs, addiction-recovery programs, summer camps, disaster assistance, and many other social services.
Salvation Army kettles can be found throughout the holiday season; most regularly at the entrance of Walmart on IH-35. There will also be site and event kettles at the fireplace at Wolf Ranch, and on the Square during the Christmas parade and Stroll.
Many of our city’s notables sign up for volunteer hours and compete to see who among them can bring in the most donations. Business and civic leaders, elected officials, and community activists all volunteer their time and employ word of mouth and social media outreach to claim bragging rights for the season. Laura Spradlin, Director of the Georgetown Service Center says, while it is an informal contest, the Salvation Army appreciates that everyone wins when the bell-ringers compete.
If you’d like to take a turn ringing the bell, visit RegisterToRing.com or email Laura.Spradlin@uss.salvationarmy.org to sign up as a volunteer and support the year-round work of The Salvation Army. Groups may also sign up for a roaming kettle to feature at a business or event until the end of December.