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Doughnuts, Salvation Army, and World War I
In 1917, America joined the rest of Europe in the “Great War”. American soldiers would be joining others from across the world to fight tyranny and evilness. At the same time, the Salvation Army’s own, Ensign Helen Purviance along with ten other young women, were attached to American First Division. Her job along with the other Salvation Army “lassies” was to spread the “word of God”, provide entertainment, and support the troops in any way she could. One of her fellow lassies, Margaret Sheldon, acknowledged that “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.”
At first, the “lassies” were going to make pies and cakes, but the camps they were attached to or staying in, did not provide good enough stoves for those types of baked goods. Instead, Sheldon and Purviance found that the camps had enough flour, grease, sugar and baking powder to produce doughnuts, essentially becoming the "Doughnut Girl." In the beginning, the girls just patted the dough into shape by hand but soon employed an ordinary wine bottle as a rolling pin. Since they had no doughnut cutter, the lassies used a knife to cut the dough into strips and then twisted them into crullers. Another story about how the doughnuts were made included the girls using what they had available; spent shell casings from the large guns to use as rolling pins, and smaller shells to use for cutting the holes out of the doughnuts.
Purviance and Sheldon created the first wartime doughnuts with the simple ingredients they had but made a huge impact on the soldiers they were serving. As other “lassies” heard of the success and began to set up some 42 different Salvation Army stands to serve doughnuts across the front lines. Although the girls worked late into the night, they could serve only 150 doughnuts the first day. The next day, that number was doubled. A while later, when fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts daily, as did other lassies along the frontline trenches. Lines of Soldiers would come for their fresh made doughnuts.
The doughnut proved ideally suited both to the insatiable craving of the troops for hot, fresh homemade treats and to the conditions in which the fighting was taking place. The doughnuts elicited strong emotions amongst the soldiers, so much so, one is quoted as saying, “Gee, if this is war, let it continue.” Another soldier exclaimed, “Looking through the doughnut hole gives me visions of mom back home.” The doughnut gave these soldiers a little piece of home in every bite and took away the troubles of the war.
The little bit of peace garnered by the doughnut led some soldiers to come up with a song attributed to the “lassies”. Amply titled, “My Doughnut Girl”, the song went like this—
In the glory of light That comes after the fight To hallow a nation’s brave, There stands forth a girl Who in war's bloody whirl Helped the fighter this country to Lassie! My Doughnut Girl I There in the battle's mad swirl. Oh, how your smiles helped us through As we toiled in the trenches for the Red, White and Bluet Mother, sister and friend. You stuck to the war's bitter end. We lift our helmets to you My Little Doughnut Girl! When the shrapnel flew fast And our fellows were gassed You sang and baked and prayed, As we bent back the line Of the Hun toward the Rhine Cheered on by the doughnuts yea made. Lassie! My Doughnut Girl
Besides this song, the official anthem, called Don’t forget the Salvation Army , was written in 1919 by Elmore Leffingwell, James Lucas, Robert Brown, and William Frisch. It pays homage to My Doughnut Girl but includes other aspects of the Army as well.
Doughnuts, as you can see, were a fond reminder of what the soldiers were fighting for; home, mother, and hearth. By the end of the war, the doughnut which was just a household treat became an everyday staple. A massive boost in demand stemmed from patriotic fervor bestowed on the doughnut due to the war effort. The doughnut was becoming a part of American life.