National Doughnut Day: The surprising origins of America's most American holiday

Shops all over the country are giving away free doughnuts on Friday in honor of National Doughnut Day. But the holiday celebrates more than just America's sweet tooth. 

Doughnut lovers, rejoice: Friday marks National Doughnut Day. America's doughnut makers are celebrating with giveaways, with Krispy Kreme giving a free doughnut to every customer, Dunkin' Donuts offering a free-doughnut-with-the-purchase-of-a-beverage deal, and smaller shops and bakeries holding promotions of their own.

National Doughnut Day is more than just an excuse to emulate Homer Simpson for a day – it has surprisingly serious origins. The Salvation Army created the holiday in 1938 to honor the fried confection's prominent role on the front lines of World War I.

In 1917, Salvation Army volunteers were sent overseas to provide American soldiers with home-cooked meals, clothes-mending services, and medical assistance. Two female Salvation Army officers, Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon, decided one day to surprise the soldiers with doughnuts. And with a simple gesture and some crude baking supplies, a tradition was born.

“I had to get on my knees to get to [the small 18 inch stove],” Purviance recalled in a 1976 interview with The Evening Independent in St. Petersburg, Fla. “But we made 150 doughnuts. And you should have seen their faces. The first soldier in line said, ‘Oh, boy! If this is war, let it continue.’”

The pastries were such a hit that other volunteers joined in, and soon the “doughnut lassies” or "doughnut dollies," as they came to be called, had increased their production to 8,000 doughnuts a day.

In her memoir “Soldiers, Sinkers and Pie,” Salvation Army Captain Signa Leona Saunders frequently mentions the role doughnuts played in her time in France during WWI. Her stories range from laughter-filled meals shared with soldiers to a young man on his deathbed requesting one last doughnut.

She also recalls finding a note on her door from a group of soldiers addressed to her Salvation Army detachment, “in appreciation of the many cups of chocolate and doughnuts; for their kindness which in many ways they have shown.”

The note contained a pledge to support the Salvation Army in its future endeavors and a short poem, the first verse of which read: “We have found you a friend, all loyal / When we’ve been hungry, tired and blue, / But S.A., we leave in the morning / But we’re not forgetting you.”

Nearly a century later, the Salvation Army's role in doughnut history has not been forgotten. On Friday, the baked-goods company Entenmann’s will present the Salvation Army with $30,000 raised from its “Win Free Donuts for a Year” sweepstakes contest at an event in Madison Square Park. Over the past five years, Entenmann’s and the Salvation Army have partnered together to raise $130,000 for the charity.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to National Doughnut Day: The surprising origins of America's most American holiday
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today