Material History of American Religion Project

Doughnuts for Doughboys

Front page of the War Cry, featuring a WWI donut lassie Before World War I, project scholar Diane Winston writes, most Americans "regarded the [Salvation Army] as just a street-corner mission to the poor." By the end of the war that image had changed, thanks in large part to the doughnut girls.

When the Salvation Army began its war work, commander Evangeline Booth decided its best contribution would be to "mother" the troops. She sent young Army women--"sallies"--to set up canteens on the front in France. There soldiers could write a letter, play a game, listen to music, or get a snack. They became best known for their doughnuts.

"The Salvation Army has a nice hut where we can get real honest American cocoa, pies and doughnuts made by American girls. Gee but they taste good!,"one soldier from Maine wrote home.

Winston argues that the doughnuts were more than just doughnuts, that they became a vernacular expression of faith in action. They "symbolized the faith. Telegraphing notions of religion and service acceptable to the public-at-large, the doughnut evoked myriad meanings. A treat rather than a staple. the doughnut represented comfort and well-being to soldiers whose lives were otherwise marked by danger and privation. It also signified love and sacrifice since cooking was so difficult in wartime conditions. Moreover, the doughnut evoked the memories of home--linked to the family kitchen and redolent of the ideals for which the doughboys fought."

The Material History of American Religion Project shares Winston's conviction that doughnuts are more than just doughnuts. Material objects, like doughnuts, buildings, and films reflect the way Americans have lived their religious lives. They are important data for historians who want to understand all of American religion.

The image above is taken from the front page of the Salvation Army's newspaper, The War Cry, from 9 November 1918. Dr. Winston's copy of this image is from the Salvation Army archives, Alexandria, Virginia.

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