Today, June 4, is National Donut Day in the United States, an opportunity to enjoy a free pastry and your once-a-year pass to get away with groan-worthy puns like “this won’t put a hole in my pocket.” But while most food-related holidays are just cringey hashtags born out of corporate desperation, Donut Day has a fascinating origin story: the annual celebration pays homage to the women at the front lines of World War I.
During the war, hundreds of women from the Salvation Army supported the American Expeditionary Forces, volunteering their time and labor to provide supplies and meals. (Women weren’t allowed to serve in the military until 1948, with a temporary exception made for World War II.) Among these were the “Doughnut Lassies,” tasked with making the irresistible treats of flour and sugar that soldiers lined up for, seeking a sweet whiff of home while stationed thousands of miles away in France.
Scarce ingredients and cooking tools meant these resourceful chefs had to get creative, resorting to shell casings and wine bottles as rolling pins and cutting donut holes with coffee percolator tubes or baking powder cans.
National Doughnut Day was established in 1938 to honor the service of the brave and tireless women who fried millions of donuts during the war. Their efforts, along with those of many other volunteer organizations, are memorialized in a trove of archival photos and ephemera held in the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Possibly the most famous image was of the Salvation Army ‘Lassie,’” Doran Cart, Senior Curator at the National WWI Museum, told Hyperallergic. “That poster from the United War Work Campaign fundraiser after the Armistice of November 11, 1918 asked for the women to ‘keep on the job’ of making doughnuts even after the guns were silenced on the Western Front.”
“Another image of a line of American soldiers waiting for doughnuts shows that even in a segregated army, Black and white soldiers stood next to each other to get their treats,” Cart added. (The photograph is scribbled with the message “We served them all, white or black” — a poignant reminder of the deeply racist attitudes toward Black soldiers, who served in segregated units from the Revolutionary War through 1948.)
An article in a September 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal in the museum’s archives describes the Salvation Army’s volunteers, primarily women as young as 16 or 17 years old, as “the little mothers of the battlefields.” At first, they used “silly little cookstoves improvised by the very poor of France,” but as their output increased, they were given Army gas ranges.
“It hasn’t improved the doughnuts,” one soldier told the magazine. “Only there’s more of ‘em.” The troops, the article adds, jokingly referred to the pies and donuts as “ammunition.”
“The average American soldier would trade a gas mask for a doughnut any day,” it reads. “Ask him!”
The Donut Lassies even had a musical tribute composed for them — “Don’t Forget The Salvation Army (My Donut Girl),” written in 1919 by Robert Brown, William Frisch, Elmore Leffingwell, and James Lucas. The cover art for the sheet music features a beaming volunteer wearing a hard hat and proudly hoisting a tubful of donuts next to a text that reads, “The only song ever officially recognized and adopted by The Salvation Army.”
The illustration is based on a popular photograph of 20-year old Stella Young, whose portrait made her famous as “‘The’ Doughnut Girl.” When she was stationed near the Metz Front, Young recounted in an article for the Daily Boston Globe, a piece of shrapnel tore through her donut pan while she stepped away to mix batter. She kept the metal fragment as a souvenir.
“From many sources, the National Doughnut Day came from the Salvation Army Chicago Branch in June 1938 as a fundraiser, but also to remind people of the effect doughnuts had in and after the World War for Americans,” Cart tells Hyperallergic.
Peruse hundreds of archival materials on the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s online collections database, and don’t forget to claim your free donut at participating shops. Or make the treats yourself by following the wartime donut recipe below, shared by the museum “for anyone looking to fill a hole in their time.” (Sigh.)