Salvation Army’s Red Kettles Turn Coins into Compassion

How the Red Kettles Got Started

Salvation Army Red Kettles
Spencer Platt / Staff / Getty Images

The Salvation Army's 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 some 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.

Red Kettles Across America

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.

Red Kettle Mystery Donors

For the past several years, something has been happening at the red kettles, leaving Salvation Army officers teary-eyed: the mysterious gold coins.

Anonymous donors drop a gold coin into the kettle, often a South African Krugerrand worth well over $1,000.

In 2009, even when charity giving dropped sharply because of the poor economy, gold coins appeared in red kettles all over the United States. Akron, Ohio; Champaign, Aurora, Springfield, Chicago, and Morris IL; Iowa City, IA; Palm Beach, FL; Colorado and Hawaii were just some of the locations where gold coins were donated during the holiday season.

"It's amazing, especially because of the state of the economy," said Salvation Army Lt. Sarah Smuda, in Hanapepe, Hawaii, of their Krugerrand, found inside a red kettle in a zipper-lock bag. "You hear about it, but don't really expect it to happen."​

Captain McFee's Christmas tradition has spread to Salvation Army posts in Europe, Japan, Korea, Chile, and other parts of the world, providing crucial support for the Army's many social service programs throughout the year.