History of the Christmas Kettle

You may feel you are all too familiar with the Christmas kettle. Even so, how much do you know about how it came into being?

The kettle’s career as a fundraiser began in 1891. That’s when Captain Joseph McFee resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner to the poor of San Francisco. But how would he pay for the food?

Then, from his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England, the captain remembered a large pot displayed on the Stage Landing, called “Simpson’s Pot.” Passersby tossed charitable donations into the pot. The captain received permission from city authorities to place a crab pot and tripod at the Oakland ferry landing at the foot of San Francisco’s Market Place. The kettle–and McFee’s request to “Keep the Pot Boiling!”–drew a lot of attention from ferry passengers. So began a tradition that spread throughout the United States, then the world.

By 1895, thirty Salvation Army corps on the West Coast used the kettle. Two young Salvation Army officers, William A. McIntyre and N.J. Lewis, took the idea with them to the East Coast. In 1897, McIntyre based his Christmas plans for Boston around the kettle. Other Army officers did not want to participate for fear of “making spectacles of themselves.” So McIntyre, his wife and sister set up three kettles in the heart of the city. That year, the kettle effort in Boston and other locations nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.

In 1898, The New York World hailed The Salvation Army kettles as “the newest and most novel device for collecting money.” In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided funds for the first mammoth sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years.

Today, donations to Salvation Army kettles at Christmas time support holiday meals for homeless and needy families, but also help The Salvation Army serve 30 million people through a myriad of other services all year long. These include:

  • Disaster Response Services, which include assisting survivors of natural and man-made disasters to recover and rebuild their lives;
  • Social Service programs providing food, shelter, clothing and financial assistance;
  • Casework and Counseling, with programs for health care and residential assistance and abuse counseling;
  • Youth Services, with programs for music, athletics, arts and crafts, camping and family counseling;
  • Senior Centers, focused on assisting the needs of older adults — including eight Silvercrest centers where seniors’ assistance is partially subsidized by federal government dollars;
  • Christmas Programs, in which the famous Red Kettles are a centerpiece, to help families and individuals financially at year-end with toys, meals and other assistance;
  • Human and Sexual Trafficking Advocacy, where Army officers and staff are focused on public policy in Washington, D.C., and providing services and advocacy for victims of this international crime.

Kettles now are used around the world, including Japan, Chile and Europe. Public contributions to the kettles enable The Salvation Army to bring the spirit of Christmas to the aged and lonely, ill, poor and disadvantaged, inmates of jails and other institutions–people otherwise often forgotten. Last year, The Salvation Army in the United States aided nearly 5 million people at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Kettles have changed since that crab pot in San Francisco. Today, some kettles have such devices as a self-ringing bell, a booth with a system that broadcasts Christmas carols, even the capability to accept credit card donations! Whatever the innovation, though, the message–”Doing the Most Good”–still supports this enduring program.