Salvation Army Kettles

Salvation Army Kettles

The sight of a well-wrapped man or woman standing next to a red kettle and shaking a hand-held bell greets many an American Christmas season shopper upon entering or leaving a department store. For over one hundred years the Salvation Army has stationed these bell-ringers on street corners and at malls in order to collect money to feed the poor at Christmas time. For many, the red kettle and tinkling bell have become a holiday symbol and a reminder that the Christmas season is upon us.

The Salvation Army is a non-profit, religious organization dedicated to spreading the Christian faith and aiding the poor. It began in London, England, in the year 1865, when Methodist minister William Booth (1829-1912) decided that in order to reach social outcasts and poor people with the Christian message, he would have to leave his church and preach in the streets. Booth and his followers overcame early opposition and achieved a degree of success. In 1878 Booth changed his organization's name from the Christian Mission to the Salvation Army. In 1880 some of Booth's followers emigrated to the United States, founding a branch of the Salvation Army in New York City. The organization is now active in 99 countries and claims over three million members worldwide.

The first Salvation Army Christmas kettle appeared in San Francisco in 1891. In that year Joseph McFee, who had achieved the rank of captain within the Salvation Army, resolved to raise funds to provide Christmas dinners for those in need. The Englishman remembered having seen people with big pots collecting coins for charity back home in his native Liverpool. He decided the same strategy could work here. McFee obtained a kettle and permission to set it up at the foot of Market Street, where the Oakland ferry landed. His campaign was a success, and by 1895 thirty Salvation Army divisions in various towns and cities were using the Christmas kettles. The use of kettles to collect coins reminded donors that their money would be used to prepare meals for the poor. Indeed, in the early days the slogan "Keep the pot boiling" often appeared on the Salvation Army signs posted above the kettles. In 1897 the Salvation Army declared that donations made to kettles nationwide had provided 150,000 Christmas dinners for poor people. By 1898 the New York chapter of the Salvation Army was providing an enormous, sit-down Christmas dinner for the poor in Madison Square Garden.

The vision of Christmas as a season especially appropriate for charitable giving gained in popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century (see also Christmas Carol, A; America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century). By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the idea of funding Christmas dinners for the poor had become particularly fashionable among the middle and upper classes. Rich donors often attended the dinners as well, which were held in arenas or theaters. The well-to-do were required to buy a ticket to the event, which entitled them to a spectator's seat inside the arena. There they witnessed first-hand masses of poor people sating their hunger, and, hopefully, expressing their gratitude to their benefactors. These trends in charitable giving may have contributed to the Salvation Army's sweeping success in their Christmas kettle campaign.

The Salvation Army still provides sit-down Christmas dinners for those in need, but today's kettle donations may also go towards providing the means for poor families to celebrate Christmas dinner at home or towards other social services. The Salvation Army aids seven million Americans each year from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Their success with the bell and kettle at Christmas time has inspired other charities to post their own volunteers on the sidewalk with similar equipment to collect charitable donations during the holiday season.

Further Reading

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Web Site

For more on the history of the Salvation Army's kettle campaign, visit the Salvation Army's International Heritage web site: army.org/heritage.nsf/AllSubCategories?openView&RestrictToCategory= Christmas_Kettle&main=Symbols
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