The history of the Donut Lassies

If you’re a fan of the crispy, sweet confection known as the donut, you have Salvation Army Adjutant Helen Purviance and her crew of “Donut Lassies” to thank.

Helen, her comrade Ensign Margaret Sheldon, and nearly 250 other lassies delivered kindness to WWI soliders on the front lines in France by mending their uniforms, playing music on the Victrola, handing out writing tablets, and distributing chocolate bars and other confections.

What’s the connection to donuts, you ask?

In the opening pages of his book, Donuts: An American Passion, food historian John T. Edge explains:

At a time when the Salvation Army was searching for ways to brand itself as American, operatives in World War I France seized upon the donut. Soon, comely Salvationists in tin hats were smiling for the cameras and tending vats of roiling lard. As they dipped donuts for their boys, they dispensed motherhood. By the close of World War I, the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in America — and their chosen totem, the donut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”

Those “comely Salvationists in tin hats” were none other than Helen Purviance, Margaret Sheldon, and the other lassies!

Here’s how Edge describes the action:

Though contemporary accounts differ as to how and why, there is no doubt that their decision to fry donuts would transform fried dough from a vaguely foreign food, loosely associated with the Dutch, into a symbol of American home and hearth, a gustatory manifestation of the ideals for which the soldiers fought…One account has the Lassies frying the first batches in a galvanized trash can; another says it was a soldier’s helmet. No matter the variation in the telling of the tale, there can be no doubt that in a very short time donuts became central to The Salvation Army ministry.”

In this unedited letter home to her family, Helen tells them what a typical — and grueling — day was like for her and for the other lassies:

“At 8 we commence to serve cocoa and coffee and make pies and doughnuts, cup cakes and fry eggs and make all kinds of eats until it is all you can see. Well can you think of two women cooking in one day 2,500 doughnuts, eight dozen cup cakes, fifty pies, 800 pan cakes and 225 gallons of cocoa, and one other girl serving it. That is a day’s work in my last hut. Then meeting at night, and it lasts for two hours.”

Adjutant Helen Purviance, credited with introducing the donut to American servicemen during WWI.

Since 1938, The Salvation Army has celebrated Adjutant Helen Purviance and her smiling contingent of donut-frying lassies with National Donut Day on the first Friday in June — this year it’s on Friday, June 3.

National Donut Day was originally started by The Salvation Army in Chicago to honor the donut lassies, but also to raise funding to help care for the men and women struggling through the Great Depression.

On June 3, you can eat a donut (or two!) knowing that you’re not just enjoying a delicious piece of WWI history, you’re honoring the brave US soldiers who fought for victory, and the lassies who freely dispensed deep-fried comfort.

About author John T. Edge:

John T. Edge’s work has appeared regularly in Gourmet and Saveur and has been featured in the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 editions of Best Food Writing. He is currently the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. His cookbook, A Gracious Plenty, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. In 2003, he was named “One of Twenty Southerners to Watch” by the Financial Times of London, and he was a finalist for the 2004 M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation.

(Thanks to The Salvation Army Western Territory Digital Creative Team for this great information!)