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The Women Who Volunteered to Make Doughnuts on the Front Lines of World War I

The Doughnut Girls of World War I delivered a taste of home when it was needed most, boosting morale and the popularity of the Salvation Army.

Over the last century, there have been some crazy deliveries made to war zones to raise morale—usually beer. Whether it's the Royal Air Force hauling it in their fuel tanks, a vet dropping it off in Vietnam for his buddies, or one soldier surrounded by German forces ferrying it in his helmet into a makeshift hospital for his wounded friend, there is nothing troops appreciate as much as a risky beer run.

Well, maybe not quite nothing.

In 1917, the women of the Salvation Army were sent to the front lines of the western front with the American First Division. Knowing the troops probably missed the kindness of home most, they devised a way to bring it to them. And what says "American homefront" better than fresh pastries?

Doughnuts are great motivation to make it through something that's less than fun. Ask any kid who's ever sat through a Sunday church service.

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  • Everyone loved The Salvation Army's Doughnut Girls, as seen in the two cheerful World War I-era posters above. 

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Salvation Army volunteers had planned to make pies and cakes, but very quickly discovered that the camps didn't have the capacity for that kind of baked good. Doughnuts, however, were made with basic ingredients and—most importantly—were fried. They could be made anywhere, anytime, with a pot and some oil.

Only miles from the trenches of eastern France, a few women started making doughnuts—at first, only 150 a day, which was way too few for the number of troops who lined up to get the treats. They quickly managed to double that amount, and once they were fully equipped, they could make between 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts per day.

That's a lot of happy soldiers.

Related: Meet the Mercy Dogs of World War I 

The troops, who would stand in line every day to pick up their doughnuts, got more than just a warm, fresh pastry. They got a reminder of home, often reminiscing on their childhoods as they ate. Every bite was a little bit of peace in a place often described as hell on earth.

The impact was so immediate at the first location that volunteers all over Europe began to make doughnuts as well, and even the folks at home heard about it. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was quoted as saying, "Before the war 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 he returned from serving in France.

The "Doughnut Lassies" or "Doughnut Girls" eventually expanded into making other baked goods when people stateside started sending more supplies. But the original name stuck—and the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was nicknamed "Doughboys" along with them. With their popularity, the Salvation Army also became the most popular organization among the overseas troops, cementing their place in American culture.

The Doughnut Girls inspired songs written by the soldiers they were serving; they are even mentioned in the official Salvation Army song, which was written in 1919—two years after the first doughnuts were fried.

Related: The Ghost Army: How One WWII Unit Fooled the Entire German Army 

Of course, the Salvation Army didn't get all the good publicity; doughnuts themselves went from a fun treat to an American staple, creating a huge boost in demand at home. We have the Doughnut Girls to thank for inspiring the popularity of one of everyone's favorite treats.

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  • Two AEF volunteers coined the "Doughtnut Girls" nickname after seeing how their tasty fried treats—little-known to Americans at the time–lifted soliders' spirits.

  • Photo Credit: Salvation Army USA West / Flicker (CC)

Across the western front, stations of as few as two women could create enough baked goods to feed an army. Though the Salvation Army only sent a total of 250 volunteers, they had a huge impact on the soldiers' wellbeing. In fact, Helen Purviance, one of the original Doughnut Girls, reportedly cooked at least a million donuts for the boys in France.

Related: Women in World War II Were Even Braver Than You Realize 

The Salvation Army was just one of the many organizations that brought women into the war effort, and those women often risked their lives to be there. The Doughnut Girls carried .45 revolvers and sometimes cooked through shellfire or wore gas masks, due to their close proximity to the front lines.

"Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff?" one soldier wrote, in a letter that was published in the Boston Daily Globe, "Served by mighty good looking girls, too."

This post originally appeared on We Are the Mighty

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 28 Nov 2019

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