The Origins of Salvation Army Red Kettles and Bell Ringers

You probably know that the kettles are one of the ways the Salvation Army raises funds to help provide food and basic services to the poor. But, did you know the kettle idea started in San Francisco back in the late 1800s? It was based on an Army officer’s remembrance of his days as a sailor back in Liverpool where a large kettle was placed on the wharf used by returning ships. Crews were usually paid at the end of a voyage so they would toss in a "copper or two" to help feed the poor.

The San Francisco Salvation Army captain placed a similar kettle (some say it was a lobster pot) at the end of the most popular wharf in San Francisco and placed next to it a sign that read "keep the pot boiling". Boil it did and hundreds of poor people were able to be fed at Christmas as a result of the generosity of sailors and others.

The idea soon spread to other cities across the U.S. and, now painted red, the kettles have become Christmas season fixtures at locations such as shopping malls and downtown corners – most overseen by volunteers who may or may not have a religious connection to the Salvation Army but who believe in their good works.

Some of the kettles are graced by appearances of local Salvation Army brass bands – and those brass bands are, themselves, part of the Salvation Army’s mission.

The bell ringers are also, for the most part, volunteers who put in their time – often in cold and wet weather – to help attract attention to the kettles.

In 2010 the Salvation Army created a free cell phone app that allowed those who downloaded it (and thousands did) to shake their phones to produce a digital version of a Salvation Army bell. It must have worked because that year the Salvation Army raised a record amount to help provide for a rapidly increasingly number of people who really needed help – some of whom probably had put money in a kettle in previous years – never expecting they would ever need help from a kettle themselves.

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