Today Is National Doughnut Day… Meet The Women Integral To Its History

Food & DrinksHistoryHoliday 1 Comment

Today marks the 79th year that National Doughnut Day is being celebrated in the U.S., a magical “holiday” started by The Salvation Army in Chicago during the Great Depression. While the pillowy dough and sweet glazey goodness are the obvious allure, the real purpose of the day, then and now, is fundraising for people in need. It also honors military veterans, and commemorates the work of The Salvation Army’s “Doughnut Lassies,” front line volunteers who made and served doughnuts to American soldiers (a.k.a. “Doughboys”) stationed abroad during World War I.

According to The Salvation Army’s main site, “Nearing the end of World War I in 1917, The Salvation Army established a mission to provide for the needs of U.S. soldiers fighting in France. Approximately 250 Salvation Army volunteers traveled overseas to set up service ‘huts’ located in abandoned buildings near the front lines where they could serve baked goods, provide writing supplies and stamps, and offer a clothes-mending service to the soldiers in battle.”

Helen_Salvation_ArmyAmong those volunteers sent to France to work with the American First Division were Ensign Helen Purviance, a 28-year-old from Huntington, IN, and Ensign Margaret Sheldon. They soon discovered that making freshly baked goods wasn’t so easy considering the hut’s conditions and the supplies they had on hand. Helen initially considered making pancakes, but that would have required plates, butter, and molasses, which she didn’t have. Instead, “She decided that donuts would be quicker and easier to make, and might remind the soldiers of home,” and recruited Margaret’s help.

As the history goes, the dynamic duo “patted the first dough into shape by hand, but soon employed an ordinary wine bottle as a rolling pin. Since they had no doughnut cutter, the women used a knife to cut the dough into strips and then twisted them into crullers.”

The sweet, taste-of-home treats Helen and Margaret were cranking out were an instant hit with the American soldiers serving abroad, and the tempting aroma of the frying dough quickly drew long lines to their hut. They served 150 doughnuts the first day, and doubled that 24 hours later. To keep up with the demand, when they ran out of pots, they ingeniously used soldiers’ helmets for frying.

Once they were fully equipped, Helen and Margaret are said to have “fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts daily,” as did other women volunteers along the front line trenches.

Eventually, some of the soldiers asked if the women could make doughnuts with holes. So Helen had “an elderly French blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter by fastening the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube to a wooden block. Later, all sorts of other inventions were employed, such as the lid from a baking powder can or a lamp chimney to cut the doughnut, with the top of a coffee percolator to make the hole.”


Through these simple acts of comfort and service, the doughnut became synonymous with easing the hardships of war, so when the men returned to U.S. soil, Salvation Army “Doughnut Lassies” or “Doughnut Girls,” like Helen and Margaret, were there to welcome them home. For this reason, The Salvation Army is credited with popularizing the doughnut in America.

If you REALLY want to celebrate today’s holiday, try your hand at making the original Salvation Army Lassies’ Doughnut. Anyone have a “tub of lard” in their pantry?


Doughnut_Lassie_bucketYield: 4 doz. doughnuts

5 C flour
2 C sugar
5 tsp. baking powder
1 ‘saltspoon’ salt
2 eggs
1 3/4 C milk
1 Tub lard


1. Combine all ingredients (except for lard) to make dough.

2. Thoroughly knead dough, roll smooth, and cut into rings that are less than 1/4 inch thick. (When finding items to cut out doughnut circles, be creative! Salvation Army doughnut girls used whatever they could find, from baking powder cans to coffee percolator tubes.)

3. Drop the rings into the lard, making sure the fat is hot enough to brown the doughnuts gradually. Turn the doughnuts slowly several times.

4. When browned, remove doughnuts and allow excess fat to drip off.

5. Dust with powdered sugar. Let cool and enjoy.

  • Anne

    I’ve often wondered why WWI soldiers were called “Doughboys”. Now I know. Thanks WYSK for this interesting bit of history.