National Donut Day

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National Donut Day

(Note: The words “donut” and “doughnuts” will be used interchangeably throughout this article.)

National Donut Day (or National Doughnut Day) is an annual observance in the United States dedicated to the recognition and consumption of donuts. Some U.S. fast food companies that are associated with donuts observe the holiday in their restaurant franchises that are located outside of the United States (Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme are primary examples).

National Donut Day is a successor to Doughnut Day, a day created by The Salvation Army in 1938. The day served 2 purposes:

  • During World War I, members of the Salvation Army served doughnuts to the soldiers that fought in that conflict. These members were called Lassies.
  • 1938 was one of the years of The Great Depression. The Salvation Army instituted Doughnut Day as a way to assist the needy during this time.

It was difficult to supply U.S. soldiers fighting in France during World War I with foodstuffs that were freshly baked. In an attempt to remedy this situation, The Salvation Army established huts in abandoned buildings as points of distribution. When the reality of making baked goods for soldiers on an ongoing basis proved to be impossible, other alternatives were investigated.

A doughnut girl distributes donuts to soldiers during World War I

Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance combined forces and pitched a new innovation to their superiors in The Salvation Army. Their idea was to serve donuts to the soldiers that came into their huts. Donuts were small, very portable and easy to mass produce. The executives at the Salvation Army immediately saw the potential in their idea. They quickly put it into practice and were pleased to find that the soldiers that received their donuts were ecstatic in their response. The lines of soldiers waiting to sink their teeth into donuts were so long that the volunteers could barely keep up with demand. In fact, demand often exceeded supply.

This was a landmark moment in the history of American desserts. Prior to the end of World War I, donuts were rarely found outside of Europe. This is despite the fact that doughnuts have an origin that is native to the United States. Now that the introduction of donuts to U.S. military men serving abroad was successful, the donut was poised to cross the Atlantic Ocean and take America by storm.

Coffee, doughnuts and pies were made in mass amounts. However, the doughnut loomed the largest in the memory of the soldiers and Salvation Army volunteers that worked in the huts. Making and serving doughnuts was primarily the work of women during this time. The female volunteers that performed this service came to be known by servicemen as Doughnut Girls.

Doughnut Girls did not limit their doughnut distribution services to Salvation Army huts. Amazingly, Doughnut Girls also brought doughnuts to soldiers on the front lines.

Doughnut Girl

(In World War II, the Red Cross assisted The Salvation Army in taking up the mantle of disseminating doughnuts to soldiers. Red Cross females that dispatched doughnuts to soldiers were known as Doughnut Dollies.)

When these servicemen came back home to the United States they retained their desire for donuts. As a result, bakeries started to make donuts all over the country. This led to more and more Americans discovering donuts. Donuts became a national sensation. The rest is history.

History of Doughnuts

Food artifacts bearing the characteristics of the doughnuts that we enjoy today have origins in the distant past. Archaeologists have found foods that resemble doughnuts in numerous excavations. However, the modern doughnut is widely believed to have been made by a citizen of the United States.

In the mid-1800s, the mother of a ship’s captain by the name of Elizabeth Gregory made fried dough with the on board supply of cinnamon and nutmeg. She placed walnuts along with hazelnuts at the center of the dough. She took a practical approach to naming her creation. Elizabeth Gregory looked at the appearance of her final products and named them doughnuts.

According to legend, the doughnut hole was created during a seafaring voyage on June 22, 1847 by Elizabeth Gregory’s 16-year-old son. Hanson Crockett Gregory was reportedly eating one of his mother’s doughnuts while maneuvering the ship. He needed to place the doughnut down momentarily so he impaled it on one of the spokes protruding from the ship’s wheel. This was the first doughnut hole of the modern era and it has been a mainstay in the aesthetic appeal of doughnuts ever since.

The Donut Hole was created on a mid-18th Century sea ship

Doughnut making technology evolves

In the 1920s, Adolf Levitt sold doughnuts in a bakery that he owned. Adolf Levitt immigrated to the United States from Russia. He had an ambitious heart and a keen intellect. He found that despite his best efforts, he could not keep up with the consumer desire for doughnuts. After witnessing the frenzied demand for doughnuts that came from his customers he decided to invent a machine that could keep up with the pace of the public’s craving for them.

Adolf Levitt invented a machine that significantly enhanced the donut making output of bakeries across the land. He found that his machine was in demand all over the United States. He was able to mass produce his invention and quickly became a very wealthy man. By the early 1930s, Adolf Levitt’s machine was making him the incredible sum of $25 million per year.

By the 1950s, doughnut producing technologies had advanced to produce doughnut volumes that were far beyond the capacities of Adolf Levitt’s invention. The Ring King came along during this time and was able to produce 75 dozen donuts every hour.

Ring King donut making machine

Doughnuts in the Depression

It only took one nickel to pay for a donut during The Great Depression. As difficult as the economic situation was for tens of millions of Americans during that time, most people could afford to splurge on the cost of a donut every now and then.

The Salvation Army started National Doughnut Day during the era of The Great Depression so that they could raise funds to promote public knowledge of the organization’s many programs to aid people in need.

The Salvation Army and the donut

Most people will never know that we owe thanks to The Salvation Army far sparking the flame of donut mania in the United States. Donuts, along with their loyal sidekick coffee, are a mainstay in the working mornings of millions of Americans. You can celebrate National Donut Day in any way you choose, just make sure that you bring a donut with you to the party. 

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