Doughnuts and Doughboys!

Hello! Thanks for visiting the Hoover Library-Museum’s new blog. We are excited to start sharing some favorite (and obscure) Hoover stories, as well as news and events from the Library-Museum itself. Like all the best meetings, we thought we would kick things off with doughnuts, so settle in with some good coffee and get ready to learn about the role these tasty treats played in boosting moral on the front during World War I.

In the footnotes of Hoover’s An American Epic, he directs readers to consult The War Romance of the Salvation Army for the Salvation Army’s numerous contributions to help soldiers and civilians during the Great War.

A poster from the United War Work Campaign, showing "The Salvation Army Lassie" with a tray of doughnuts. The poster reads: "Oh, Boy! That's the Girl! The Salvation Army Lassie. Keep Her on the Job."

One of the more unique passages in the book is a detailed description of the first doughnuts made by the “lassies” of the Salvation Army for the soldiers at Montiers, France. Seeking to counteract the homesickness of soldiers as well as misery brought about by 36 days of continuous rain and Trench foot that resulted from the damp exposure, the women of the Salvation Army decided to use the apples in the surrounding orchards to bake pies. They soon discovered that they lacked an oven in which to bake the pies. Plan B was to make doughnuts. But even this alternative proved difficult.

The numerous problems they needed to overcome are outlined by the authors: “Flour was obtainable only in small quantities. Now and then they could get a sack of flour or a bag of sugar, but not often. Lard also was a scarce article.” Moreover the women “had no rolling-pin and no cake-cutter in the outfit. Nevertheless, they bravely went to work. The little tent intended for such things had blown down, so the lassie had to stand out in the rain to prepare the dough.”

Eventually someone found an empty grape juice bottle that became the rolling-pin and a knife was used to cut out each doughnut. An open fire with a fry pan was set up and an assembly-line could fry up to seven doughnuts at a time resulting in 150 doughnuts for the first day. Their ingenuity was a remarkable achievement that did not, however, satisfy the 800 men who desired one of the tasty morsels. The next day more improvements were made by using the top of the baking powder can for the doughnut shape and the inside tube of the coffee percolator to make the doughnut hole. Production rose to 300. More than comfort food was being provided to the soldiers. Smiling face and an understanding ear to listen to the soldiers also accompanied each doughnut served. Booth and Hill joked about the impact of their efforts: “The girls that prayed over the doughnuts, and then got the maximum of grace out of the minimum of grease.” Continued improvements raised the total production to 5,000 doughnuts a day with the use of a very tiny French stove. With the increase in doughnut output, the authors noticed “some of the unresting workers developed ‘doughnut wrist’ from sticking to the job too long at a time.” This condition is better known as carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive motion syndrome.

National Doughnut Day takes place the first Friday of June every year, but most people who observe the day by eating a doughnut probably do not realize the significance of the celebration. The Salvation Army in Chicago started National Doughnut Day in 1938 as a way to raise funds and bring awareness to The Salvation Army’s social service programs during the Great Depression, and to commemorate the “donut lassies” who had provided writing supplies, stamps, clothes-mending and home-cooked meals, and of course, doughnuts, for soldiers on the front lines during World War I.

This story ties in with the current exhibit on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum: The Making of the Great Humanitarian: Herbert Hoover and World War I.

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