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Kettle History

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How the Kettle Became an American Icon

Today's hi-tech messaging has nothing on The Salvation Army's traditional Christmas kettle when it comes to speedy communication. The familiar red kettles, with their host of volunteers and brightly ringing bells, instantly announce to each person who passes, "It's the holiday season...time to pitch in and help those less fortunate in our community."

But how does it happen that a small red kettle has such a big place in Salvation Army fundraising at Christmas? The tradition goes back to 1891, when in San Francisco a Salvation Army officer, Captain Joseph McFee, made a hasty promise. Knowing many families of shipwrecked sailors were poverty-stricken and could provide little or no holiday celebration for their children, he promised to share free Christmas dinners and other assistance.

Keeping his promise, however, was a bigger challenge than he had anticipated. How would he pay for everything? With sudden inspiration, he recalled his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England, and "Simpson's Pot," placed on the wharf for passersby to toss in charitable contribution. McFee knew it has worked there, but could it work in San Francisco?

The Captain got the city's permission to place a large pot in a conspicuous site at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. He also placed a brass urn on a stand in the ferry's waiting room. In time, the pots were filled and McFee was able to make Christmas brighter for more than a thousand of the city's poor.

By 1895, the idea had become so successful that 30 Salvation Army corps on the west coast had adopted the fundraising idea. And by 1898, the red kettle was being widely used by the Army throughout the U.S. The New York World described the kettle as the "newest and most novel device for collecting money," noting that "a man is in charge to see that contributions are not stolen."

Today, the tradition continues. Passersby toss coins and dollar bills into the red kettle, and the miracle is that these small donations add up to millions of dollars each year to help those served by The Salvation Army. The funds provide food, clothing, toys for children and other assistance during the holiday season and also make possible The Salvation Army's many programs and services throughout the year.

Modern-day kettles, manned by volunteers and Salvation Army personnel and employees, play a major part in the Army's holiday fund-raising worldwide. And whether the bell is ringing in Japan, Korea, Chile or even here in Flint, the message is the same: Sharing is Caring.


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