It’s June, which means plenty of fun holidays like Go Skate Day on the 21st and Hug Holiday Day on the 29th. But before you grab that skateboard or find a person in need of an embrace, you get to celebrate a delicious day that comes with a heartwarming history lesson. On June 6th, in big cities and small towns all across America, The Salvation Army will celebrate the 76th Annual National Donut Day.
National Donut Day was started in Chicago in 1938 as a way to raise funds to help those suffering most during the Great Depression. The event was so popular that it became an annual tradition, sparking fund raising events and donut distributions all over the U.S.
Why donuts? That’s where the history lesson begins.
When the U.S. joined the Great War raging in Europe in 1917, The Salvation Army’s U.S. National Commander, Evangeline Booth, assembled leaders within the organization who would direct efforts to help meet the needs of our young soldiers. “American boys are going to France,” she said. “We must go with them.”
Reports from France told stories of weary soldiers suffering from depression and homesickness. Commander Booth and her war secretaries selected a group of eleven officers, both men and women, to set up operations at the front lines. They set out for France on April 12, 1917 with this message from Commander Booth: “You are going overseas to serve Christ. You must forget yourselves, be examples of His love, willing to endure hardship, to lay down your lives, if need be, for His sake. In your hands you hold the honor of The Salvation Army and the glory of Jesus Christ.”
The Salvation Army officers offered comfort and church services, mended uniforms, assisted medics and provided prayer and song at the daily burials of young soldiers. They addressed the needs of the men, finding creative ways to bring comfort in a time of great sorrow, pain and loss. It was two “lassies,” ensigns Helen Purviance (a native of Evansville, Indiana) and Margaret Sheldon who looked at a dwindling food supply and came up with an idea to bring a little home cooking to the dispirited soldiers.
Using flour, lard, baking soda, sugar, canned milk and cinnamon, they made the first batch of donuts by hand and fried them in a tiny Salvation Army hut over a pot bellied stove. Like moths to a flame, the men came in search of the delicious treats, standing in line just to try something hot and fresh from the stove. Word spread and the operations grew, spreading across camps as Salvation Army officers and volunteers set up kitchens in tents and trenches across France. At the height of the war, The Salvation Army was frying up to 9,000 donuts each day, served, at no cost to the fighting men, with a hot cup of coffee and a blessing.
The men affectionately called these hardworking women “donut girls” – fitting companions to these “doughboys.” The name stuck, and so did the memory of those fresh donuts. When the soldiers came home at the end of the war, they brought with them a love of the sweet confection and sparked a boom in the popularity of donuts in America. The relationship between The Salvation Army and our nation’s fighting forces has remained strong, too. In every conflict since the Great War, The Salvation Army has been there, as part of the USO, sending care packages overseas, welcoming returning soldiers and helping veterans.
National Donut Day is more than an excuse to indulge in a delicious donut. It’s also a reminder of how compassion, faith and a willingness to put others above one’s self can restore hope, even in the darkest times.
On Friday, June 6, 2014 The Salvation Army in Central Indiana celebrated National Donut Day by setting up shop on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. Starting at 6 a.m., fresh donuts and coffee were served all morning, free of charge, from a Salvation Army canteen. We were joined by Square Donuts, our generous National Donut Day sponsor, which donated 2,000 donuts for passersby in downtown Indianapolis. We hope you were able to stop by, enjoy a donut, and join us in thanking our brave “lassies” for their sweet contribution to American history.