The First Salvation Army Bell Ringer

Nov 7, 2018 | by Simon Wong (ed)

The Red Kettle debuted in San Francisco in 1891 but bells were not rung until 1900. Salvation Army Officer Cadet Amelia Kunkle (1884 - 1984) was a kettle worker in New York City. Aged 16, in her navy blue uniform, red ribbon-trimmed bonnet and skirts scraping the sidewalk, she waited patiently for donations.

“When I first stood by the kettle to ’keep the pot a-boiling,’ it was a bleak, cold, damp day. Girl-cadets wore long, black cotton stockings and rubbers over regular shoes; rubbers resembled slippers but were unlined and not high-topped like modern galoshes or boots.

“Standing on newspapers helped block the dampness and penetrating cold. I was in The Battery, near Wall Street. Our kettle was by the entrance, or exit, to the ‘El’ which brought droves of businessmen to and from the financial district. Some contributed to The Salvation Army kettle; most passed by.

“In those days, the average donation was a nickel or a dime; sometimes a quarter; occasionally, a dollar. One afternoon, donations totaled $18; very good for a four-hour stint! Most days, I was disappointed that people ignored me and my kettle.”

One day, Amelia complained to Major Chadwell, one of her Administrators. He suggested she “find a stick and bang on the kettle to draw attention.” When she disapproved, he replied “Well, then, Cadet Kunkle, you’ll certainly solve that problem all by yourself before long!”

Sure enough, the next day, Amelia found just what she wanted in a nearby Woolworth’s - a small bell with a short, dark wooden handle, not more than six inches in overall length. As she picked it up, the little bell gave a slight tinkle. It cost just 10 cents. 

Amelia rang the bell on her next kettle duty. More people stopped; she greeted each contribution with a cheery “God Bless You” and “Merry Christmas.” Her idea spread like wildfire; soon, all the cadets were ringing bells, raising funds for The Salvation Army's Christmas Dinner. Thanks to Cadet Amelia Kunkle, the peal of a Salvation Army Red Kettle worker’s hand bell is synonymous with Christmas giving.

Today, bell ringers from all walks of life continue to brave the cold and the crowds at Christmastime, united in their resolve to help the less fortunate, people who might otherwise be forgotten but shall never go unserved.

In its milestone 125th year, the Red Kettle Campaign of 2015 set a new national fundraising record. Some 25,000 bell ringers of all ages and backgrounds, along with numerous corporate partners, raised $149.6 million for the campaign, with all money going to work directly in the community where it was raised.

The Salvation Army’s iconic Red Kettle continues to fund the fight to deliver light and love to around 25 million people each year in every zip code, with almost 3.25 million seeking Holiday assistance, alone in 2017. Thank you for your support.


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