The Official Story

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Since 1917, when a cheerful Salvation Army lassie handed a fresh doughnut to a homesick doughboy in France. The Salvation Army doughnut has symbolized loving concern for those in the armed forces.

In 1917 young Helen Purviance, an ensign in the Salvation Army, was sent to France to work with the American First Division. Putting her Hoosier ingenuity to work, she and a fellow officer, Ensign Margaret Sheldon, patted the first dough into shape by hand, but soon employed an ordinary wine bottle as a rolling pin. Since they had no doughnut cutter, the lassies used a knife to cut the dough into strips and then twisted them into crullers.

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                                     Ensign Helen Purviance of Huntington, Indiana and Crew – Inventors of the Doughnut as We Love It

Ensign Purviance coaxed the wood fire in the potbellied stove to keep it at an even heat for frying. Because it was back-breaking to lean over the low fire, she spent most of the time kneeling in front of the stove.

“I was literally on my knees,” she recalled, “when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frypan. There was also a prayer in my heart that somehow this home touch would do more for those who ate the doughnuts than satisfy a physical hunger,”

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The Salvation Army in Action

Soon the tempting aroma of frying doughnuts drew a lengthy line of soldiers to the hut. Standing in mud and rain, they patiently waited their turn.

Although the girls worked late into the night, they could serve only 150 doughnuts the first day. The next day, that number was doubled. A while later, when fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts daily, as did other lassies along the frontline trenches.

After several soldiers asked, “Can’t you make a doughnut with a hole in it?”, Ensign Purviance had an elderly French blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter by fastening the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube to a wooden block. Later, all sorts of other inventions were employed, such as the lid from a baking powder can or a lamp chimney to cut the doughnut, with the top of a coffee percolator to make the hole.

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Ensign Stella Young of Everett, Massachusetts

The soldiers cheered the doughnuts and soon referred to Salvation Army lassies as “doughnut girls,” even when they baked apple pies or other treats. The simple doughnut became a symbol of all that the Salvation Army was doing to ease the hardships of the frontline fighting man — the canteens in primitive dugouts and huts, the free refreshments, religious services, concerts, and a clothes-mending service.

Today Salvation Army Red Shield Clubs and USO units offer members of the Armed Forces a variety of services, ranging from attractive recreational facilities to family counseling — but the famous doughnut remains a perennial favorite.

Nor is it confined to those in uniform. During every sort of peacetime emergency –fires, floods, earthquake, transit strikes, blackouts — The Salvation Army’s mobile canteens have provided thousands of civilians with the doughnuts that stand for the Salvationist’s loving concern and readiness to help in time of need.

 Sources: Susan Mitchem Director of the Archives at Salvation Army Headquarters provided this article. Susan, Lettie Gavin, and Herb Stickel provided the photos. MH



The following is an article from the St Petersburg Florida Evening Independent newspaper published on May 7, 1976.        Staff Writer Marian Nott interviewed Retired Lt. Col. Helen Purviance.

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Her Story Full Of Holes 

The Stove was small and round and only 18 inches across. “I had to get on my knees to get to do it,” she says.

“But we made 150 doughnuts. And you should have seen their faces,” say Helen Purviance.

“The first soldier in line said, ‘Oh, boy! If this is war, let it continue.’ ”

            This is Lt. Col. Purviance talking, a retired Salvation Army officer, a Salvation Army Lassie and the first doughnut girl of World War I.

            “Later, we were able to turn out 8,000 doughnuts a day. But in the beginning we were working with crude equipment,” she recalls.

            The first doughnuts didn’t really look like doughnuts because there was no doughnut cutter, she says. “We just twisted the dough.”

            When these first doughnuts proved to be so popular, 28-year-old Salvation Army ensign Helen Purviance took an empty evaporated milk can and an empty tube of shaving cream to the village blacksmith.

            “He couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any French. But some how I managed to get him to understand that I wanted these two things nailed together on a small block of wood. This served as our doughnut cutter for more than a month until a real one was sent over from the United States,” she says.

            More than 50 years have passed since then. But those days are as real to retired Lt. Col Purviance as if they were yesterday.

            Although today Helen Purviance is confined to a wheelchair and wears civilian clothes, she well remembers the day she and her assistant Margaret Sheldon were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll near the Salvation Army hut behind the front lines.

            “We had been making fudge for the soldiers and we were trying to think of something else to make with some supplies we’d gotten from the commissary of the ammunition train. And the more we talked, it just spelled doughnuts.”

            “Margaret said, ‘But what about eggs?’ I said I would go see the villagers about eggs. We got the eggs. When we made the first doughnuts, we partitioned off the hut with a blanket so the soldiers wouldn’t know what we were making until it was ready,” she says.

            The first doughboy to get a doughnut was Pvt. Braxton Zuber of Auburn, Ala, who later worked with the doughnut girls as fulltime aide.

            “This came about because it was discovered Zuber had lied about his age when he enlisted.  He was only 16. When he was sick and had to go the hospital, he confessed his real age. The military was going to send him home.

            “We had a detail assigned to help us get water and things such as that. So when the Army said it was going to send Zuber home, I said to them, ‘You are now assigning me an able bodied man who could be used for other duties.  Why don’t you let me have Zuber. Until he confessed, you would have never known he was under age. You could give me him instead of sending me a different man each day.’

            “We got Zuber. And I kept up with him and his family through the years. He is dead now,” says Lt. Col. Purviance.

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When she went overseas, she was attached to the ammunition train of the U.S. Army First Division.

“There were four companies in my outfit, A, B, C, D. The major would assign them in turn to take responsibility for taking our tent down, packing our supplies and loading them on top of a truck.  We would climb up on top of our pile of supplies when we moved.  We always moved at night because of the ammunition train. “

            “General Pershing wasn’t keen about women going close to the front lines. He said he didn’t want to take the responsibility for us. We told him he wasn’t. We were taking the responsibility to do this. It seemed to us that the greater their (the soldiers) danger, the greater was their need.

            “They armed us immediately with a gas mask, helmet and a .45 calibre revolver. They instructed us to take target practice for our own protection,” Says the colonel.

            The Salvationist says she can’t say she was ever afraid. “We just knew anything could happen, though. There was machine gun fire and they dropped some bombs from planes. One of them fell in our back yard. But somehow or other, you get an inner reserve which comes to your assistance in a time of great stress.”

            Lt. Col. Purviance says she never met with any discourtesy from anyone in the military.

            “The only time I know of anybody swearing around the Salvation Army was one night when I heard a disturbance behind our tent. There was a sound of scuffling and one man said, ‘This man wanted to use profanity and we wanted him to know he couldn’t do this around a Salvation Army tent.”

            The greatest physical hardships came as a result of the weather, recalls Lt. Col. Purviance.

            “That first winter, we were very, very cold. How did we keep warm? We didn’t. Our feet would get frozen. We used to take candles and light them and put them close to our feet to warm them.  We tried to get hot water to wash our feet.

            “When I came back to this country, I had 19 black spots on my feet where they had been frozen, thawed out and frozen again.”

            Other than the cold, Lt. Col. Purviance says her only physical problem was what she calls a “doughnut wrist” from cooking so many doughnuts that the bone bulged out.

            “When we were up at the front, though, we ate what the men ate. This was usually canned potatoes or canned carrots. They were horrible. “

            “When we were where we could do cooking, I used to ask the sergeant to meet the incoming boat and buy up the supplies that were left because these supplies which were not bought by a commissary were not taken back on board.

            “We would buy French food, too, and French cookies. And we were where we could cook, we would serve the food to the men as an extra treat. But we didn’t cook meals per se,” she says.

            The Salvationist says she served the men a lot of hot chocolate. “This was something we could buy from the French. It took time to get things over from the United States.”

            As for the doughnuts, she says, “I have always said that the doughnuts became known in 1847. But I do think they came into their own on Oct. 19, 1917, when Margaret Sheldon and I decided to make doughnuts in World War I.”

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