Holiday Heroes: The history of the Salvation Army’s bell ringers and red kettles

In 1865, General William Booth founded the Salvation Army in London's notorious East End slums with a call to action for the more fortunate members of society as they celebrated the holiday season.

"William Booth was a Methodist lay preacher in the east end of London, which is an area that had a lot of poverty, a lot of recent immigrants, drunkards, prostitutes, and orphans, so William Booth began to go out and preach. He was kind of your typical soapbox preacher and he realized that there, it’s hard to say, that there’s a loving God out there when people are hungry and cold. So the concept came up of soup, souls and salvation," said Captain John Gantner of the Salvation Army Kroc Center.

How did soup, souls and salvation in the 1800s turn into the modern Salvation Army we see in 2021?

 ABC57’s Brian Conybeare took a look back at how the story of the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign and bell ringers all began.

The kettle collections started accidentally in San Francisco in 1891 when a local Salvation Army captain named Joseph McFee publicly promised to feed 1,000 destitute people near Fisherman’s Wharf.

To raise the money needed, McFee found an old lobster pot and came up with the slogan “Keep the pot boiling.” He then set up on the waterfront.

"He stepped forward and agreed to do something and had a bunch of people he needed to feed a Christmas dinner to and he wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to do that. He basically put a lobster pot out there and began to collect money to help that year and he was able to meet his goal in San Francisco,” Gantner said. 

The bell tradition began in 1900 with a teenage volunteer in New York City named Amelia Kunkel. She was apparently frustrated by the many bankers on Wall Street who walked by and ignored her.

Kunkel went to a nearby Woolworth’s department store and bought a small bell for ten cents. The rest is history.

“There was a girl in New York who was 16 years old and that’s when she started ringing the bell and that became the bell tradition and now the red kettle program, which is what we call it. So it has a strong tradition here in the United States and I think in the world it was probably the original crowdfunding program out there,” Gartner said.

The bells and kettles are now helping crowdfund the less fortunate in 131 different countries, including 30 million Americans every year. Roughly 1.8 million Salvation Army members join in around the globe.

One volunteer, 78-year-old Ephraim N’Degwa, collects donations in Mishawaka for eight hours a day as the temperatures drop down near freezing.

“I love ringing the bell because I am happy and the people who hear the bell ringing and whistling are happy as well!” N’Degwa said.

It’s not just coins and folded up dollar bills being dropped into the famous red kettles these days. You can now use your smart phone with Google or Apply Pay to donate.

“The Salvation Army is stepping into the future and we’re doing a lot of digital online things so Apple Pay, Google Pay, all these different things are acceptable. You’re able to go online we even have virtual red kettles,” Gantner said.

Despite challenges like a coin shortage and a decrease in volunteers, the South Bend Salvation Army unit is focused on raising $200,000 through the kettle campaign by Christmas.

“The one thing a lot of people don’t realize a lot of the money that we raise during the Christmas season goes to help our units throughout the entire year to provide those basic services to make sure that people don’t fall through the safety net. We’re going to make sure that nobody goes hungry, that nobody’s cold and that nobody is out there lonely,” Gantner said. “We’re going to come along side people again as the American people enable us to do in such an amazing way but this money serves us all year round it’s not just spent and used at Christmas although we do a ton of things with the Christmas programs and presents and food and Christmas dinners in those type of things but this actually sustains us throughout the year.”

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