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.

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