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How Salvation Army red kettles landed in Boston

Cathy Birchmore of Quincy has been ringing a bell for the Salvation Army for 42 years. DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Salvation Army has dispatched about 400 red kettles and many more bell ringers across Massaschusetts this year, with hopes of raising $3.5 million from these small seasonal donations.

The kettles see about six weeks of action annually, starting around Veterans Day and continuing through Christmas Eve, according to a Salvation Army spokesperson. To help raise publicity for the collection efforts, Mayor Martin J. Walsh manned a red kettle for an hour Tuesday at Downtown Crossing.

But the Salvation Army wasn’t always known for such friendly (or well-known) bell-ringers. When the organization first took shape in England more than 150 years ago, it stood out for its odd marriage of missionary zeal and military ethos.

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During the 1860s, evangelist William Booth decided that army-style discipline would be the key to reaching and serving London’s poorest citizens. His Salvation Army recruited thousands of volunteers in England before branching out to the United States in 1880. When eight members landed in New York City in March of that year, The New York Times described them as “fresh, strong-looking young persons,” who “created quite a sensation” in their dark-blue uniforms and were prepared to “preach in the streets to whoever would listen.”

It took more than 10 years for the organization to begin using kettles to collect donations. The idea came from Salvation Army Captain Joseph McPhee in 1891, who wanted to raise money for a Christmas feast for the poor in San Francisco. The practice was implemented in Boston in 1897.

Today, these small holiday contributions make up about 10 percent of the Massachusetts division’s annual operating costs. The rest of its funds come from individual and corporate donations, private grants, and some federal money.

According to its annual financial reports, the Massachusetts division spends most of its revenue on 32 community centers, four adult rehabilitation centers, emergency services after natural disasters, childcare for needy families, and other social services.

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Jacey Fortin can be reached at jacey.fortin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaceyFortin.