Salvation Army red kettle tradition began by accident 127 years ago

December 04, 2018 - 5:11 am

Americans across the country are familiar with the Salvation Army red kettle and the bell ringer, but most don't know the origin of the traditional fund-raiser.

The history of the red kettle began in 1891 when a San Francisco Salvation Army officer needed to feed a thousand people for a holiday meal. 

"The way to do that was to put a big kettle out that they would cook the food in, but it was empty," said Salvation Army Maj. David Harvey in Kansas City. "So people filled it with food and other cash donations, and that was just for one day's meal."

Red kettles today account for 70 percent of the organization's operating budget. For every kettle set outside a store, there are several people who take turns ringing a bell. The bell was originally used to inform needy people that a meal was ready to eat.

Marcy Langhofer is part of a group that works to fill 175 bell ringer shifts during the season. 

"Probably the same people have rung on Christmas Eve every year for the last several years, because they just make it part of their holiday tradition," Langhofer said.

A new feature for the red kettles this year is a QR code that allows shoppers to use their Google or Apple accounts to donate. Holiday giving is as easy as taking a picture with a mobile device, Maj. Harvey said.

There's at least one other piece of trivia connected to Salvation Army bell ringers. The 1950 classic Christmas carol, "Silver Bells," was inspired by volunteers who stand outside stores on cold shopping days.

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