How the Red Kettles Came To Be

The Salvation Army red kettles have become a Christmas tradition in nearly every part of the world, but the idea for the little collection pots was born over a century ago, from prayer and desperation.

The red kettle story goes back to 1891, when Joseph McFee, a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco, California, was overwhelmed with the number of poor in that city. McFee had a simple idea. He wanted to provide free Christmas dinners to 1,000 of the poorest of those people, to give them just a little holiday hope. Sadly, he had no money for the meals.

McFee tossed and turned at night, praying and thinking about the problem. Slowly, a solution came. He recalled his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England. At Stage Landing, where the ships docked, a large iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot” had been placed. People walking by would toss in a coin or two for the needy.

Finding a pot, Captain McFee put it at the Oakland Ferry Landing, by the foot of San Francisco’s busy Market Street. He placed a sign next to it that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” Word got around quickly, and by Christmas the kettle had raised enough money to feed the poor.


The success of the San Francisco campaign spread to other American cities. In 1897, the Salvation Army used kettles in the Boston area. Nationwide, enough money was raised that Christmas to feed 150,000 people. The red kettles spread to New York City too. In 1901, kettle proceeds allowed The Salvation Army to host a huge sit-down Christmas dinner for the destitute in Madison Square Garden. That tradition continued for several years.

Over the decades, The Salvation Army’s red kettle collections have raised millions of dollars for the organization’s work. Each year, The Salvation Army serves more than 4.5 million people during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Throughout the U.S. and across around the world.