Count Rumford and the History of the Soup Kitchen

The story behind Salvation Army’s red collection kettles

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Every December, the Salvation Army deploys bell-ringers to shopping areas to collect donations for the needy, acting as jingling reminders that not everyone has a roof over his head or food in her belly, much less gifts under the tree.

The ringers' iconic red collection kettles, which represent soup pots, have been a tradition since 1891. That was the year, according to the Salvation Army, that Joseph McFee brainstormed an idea to fund a Christmas dinner for the destitute in San Francisco. Recalling his sailor days, McFee thought of the port in Liverpool, where passersby would toss coins for the poor into a kettle called "Simpson's Pot." He put out a similar pot by the Oakland ferry landing on Market Street, along with a sign reading, "Keep the pot boiling," and soon had enough to feed 1,000 people dinner.

It's no coincidence that a soup kettle was the symbol for feeding the poor, rather than, say, a roasting pan or a skillet. Soup has always been one of the most economical ways to provide nourishing, filling food to a large quantity of people. Although he was hardly the first person to come up with the idea to feed the poor, an interesting fellow known as Count Rumford is often credited with establishing the first real soup kitchen.

Born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753, he fled to Britain during the American Revolution, having been accused of being loyal to the crown. He went on to have a brilliant career as a scientist, social reformer and inventor. His work for the Bavarian government earned him the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and he chose Rumford, the New Hampshire town where he lived for a time, as the place he was from (the full name was Benjamin Count von Rumford).

His biggest project may have been his plan to rid Munich of its beggar problem by feeding—and, more pointedly, employing—the poor. According to the handbook he wrote for other cities to emulate, "mendicity" was epidemic there—"In short, these detestable vermin swarmed everywhere," he wrote. He was speaking specifically of those able-bodied cadgers would send out scuffed-up children to prey on public sympathy, and who had developed an elaborate system of mooching food from merchants, which they would then sell to other shopkeepers at a profit.

After sending out troops to roust the beggars, Rumford established workhouses, where poor people, including children, were employed to make military uniforms. Those who were too weak, young or awkward to do more strenuous work were given the easier tasks of carding wool or spooling yarn. The youngest children were to sit in chairs in the workroom, where they would be enticed by boredom to prefer work. Children attended an on-premises school before and after work and, Rumford noted, were also given the opportunity to recreate and play.

"At the hour of dinner," Rumford wrote, "a large bell was rung in the court, when those at work in the different parts of the building repaired to the dining-hall; where they found a wholesome and nourishing repast." This consisted of "a very rich soup of peas and barley, mixed with cuttings of fine white bread; and a piece of excellent rye bread, weighing seven ounces, which last they commonly put in their pockets, and carried home for their supper."

Rumford was also an early proponent of the potato as good, cheap and filling food, though this New World ingredient was still viewed with suspicion by many Europeans.

Although some of his methods (like child labor) wouldn't necessarily mesh with today's sensibilities, the basic concept of Rumford's program set the groundwork for the last century's soup kitchens. And through his many scientific innovations, he developed tools that improved cooking for everyone, poor or not, including the cast-iron Rumford stove (the first commercially available kitchen range), which kept in heat and allowed temperature to be regulated better than on an open hearth; a pressure cooker (though not necessarily the first one); and a drip coffee maker.

But the item bearing Rumford's name that is probably most familiar to cooks today wasn't actually his invention: a brand of baking powder was named in his honor.

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