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This Day in History: The Doughnut Girls of WWI

On this day in 1917, eleven Salvation Army officers arrive in France. They were to support our troops, then fighting in World War I.


“They thought they would just be doing the same things that they did at home,” a Salvation Army magazine explains, “sing some music to relax the troops, hold religious services to keep their souls and minds refreshed, talk to the soldiers to remind them of what they were fighting for back home.”


But then two women had an idea that would make history.

Ensigns Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon were stationed behind the American fighting lines at Monte-sur-Soux, France. It had been raining for 36 days. The soldiers were despondent, and they wondered if “some good American food” might cheer things up a bit. They thought of making cake or pie, but they didn’t have the proper equipment.


Perhaps they could make doughnuts.


The women managed to find some flour, grease, sugar, and baking powder. Accounts vary about how the first round of doughnuts was made, but the doughnuts may have been patted out by hand, then cooked in a small stove.


“I was literally on my knees,” Purviance would later say, “when those first donuts were fried . . . with a prayer in my heart that this would do more for those who ate the donuts than satisfy a physical hunger.”


The enticing smell of doughnuts wafted towards our soldiers. Soon, a long line began to form. The soldiers wanted those doughnuts!


Purviance and Sheldon worked late into the night, but they were able to make only 150 doughnuts the first day. The following day, they doubled that number. Would you believe that, by the time the effort really got going, the women could make up to 9,000 doughnuts a day?


Word got around. Soon, other Salvation Army women had joined in: Dozens of Salvation Army stands were set up across the front lines. The women found all sorts of creative methods for churning out more and more doughnuts. Shell casings could serve as makeshift rolling pins. A soldiers’ helmet made a nice mixing bowl—or even a place to fry a doughnut.


These Salvation Army ladies came to be called Doughnut Girls.


“[W]e thought someone ought to care for the boys as their mothers at home would do,” one Doughnut Girl told a wartime correspondent, “and we undertook the job in our humble way. I only wish we could do more. We know that the boys need more than sermons and songs here. They miss the care and the kindness of home, and we want to give them a little of something as near like it as possible.”


Getting supplies for the doughnuts wasn’t always easy—and it was expensive! The doughnuts were sold at cost to keep the effort going.


Of course, it was really the perseverance of the women that meant so much to our soldiers.


“I have just come out of the trenches,” one soldier wrote his mother, “and now it is mud, mud, mud, up to one’s knees. I often think of the fireplace at home these cold nights, but, mother, I must tell you that I don’t know what we boys would do if it was not for the Salvation Army. The women, they are just like mothers to the boys. . . . Those women certainly have courage, to come right out in the trenches . . . they are so kind and good.”


Theodore Roosevelt’s son was then serving with the Army, too. “Before the war,” he said, “I felt that the Salvation Army was composed of a well-meaning lot of cranks. Now what help I can give them is theirs.”


After the war, demand for doughnuts spiked. Soldiers came back to the States with plans to open doughnut shops. The Salvation Army even created a National Donut Day in 1938 as a fundraiser.


What had once been considered a treat was now a normal part of patriotic American life.

Enjoyed this post? More stories of American

heroines can be found on my website, HERE.


Primary Sources