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How Salvation Army bell-ringing began

In December 1891, Capt. Joseph McFee of The Salvation Army in San Francisco, Calif., wanted to provide a Christmas dinner for 1,000 poor people, but had no way to pay for it.

Then he recalled his time as a sailor in Liverpool, England, where, on the docks of the city’s waterfront, there was a large pot into which charitable donations were thrown. The kettle was a very successful method for raising money for charity.

Capt. McFee secured permission to place a brass urn at the Oakland ferry landing. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” Soon, he had all the money he needed for the Christmas dinner.

Two years later, McFee’s fundraising idea had expanded to 30 kettle locations on the West Coast. He’d grown the program with help from two young Salvation Army officers, William A. McIntyre and N.J. Lewis. In spring 1896, McIntyre and Lewis were transferred to the East Coast and they took with them the idea of a Christmas kettle.

McIntyre was stationed in Boston. During the 1897 Christmas season, he, his wife and sister set up three kettles in the heart of the city. Their effort, combined with others on the West Coast and elsewhere, resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the poor, nationwide.

Red kettles spread to New York City, where the New York World newspaper hailed them 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 donations in New York City funded a massive sit-down Christmas dinner at Madison Square Garden. The meal became a tradition for many years.

Capt. McFee’s idea launched a tradition that has spread throughout the United States and across the world. Although red kettles are not found in all 126 countries The Salvation Army serves in, they can still be found in such distant lands as Korea, Japan, Chile and many European countries.

For more information, call The Salvation Army, 304-296-3525.