If you happen to start your morning with a fresh donut and some hot coffee from one of the country’s major donut outlets, then you’ve likely heard of the unofficial holiday that takes place on the first Friday of June. Many donut shops give away donuts and offer their customers tantalizing deals to commemorate the occasion.
What you may not know is that this tradition has been around for a while. Decades, in fact. This year, the U.S. is celebrating its 79th National Donut Day. But the story behind this sugary holiday goes back even further.
A hundred years ago, Einstein was publishing his very first paper, Houdini was experimenting with a “buried alive” escape, and World War I was in full swing. The U.S. completed its first major deployment of troops to France, and the Salvation Army was not far behind. Hundreds of volunteers traveled across the sea to help support the brave American soldiers serving so far away from home.
In an attempt to provide some form of comfort to the men, several long huts were constructed near training bases where volunteers would sing, play instruments, hold Bible studies, and even offer baked goods like pies and cakes.
As you might imagine, it wasn’t that easy to bake enough pies and cakes to satisfy thousands of hungry servicemen in a 40-by-150-foot hut in the middle of a war zone. That’s when Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon, two of the Salvation Army “Sallies” as they were called, came up with a brilliant solution. Instead of trying to bake a single pie or cake in a make-shift oven, they decided to fry the dough in a small vat of hot oil. This method allowed them to fry multiple treats at the same time, meaning that hundreds of doughnuts could be produced each day by a single volunteer.
20 years later, the United States was consumed by the Great Depression, and the Salvation Army was on the front lines once again. They designed an event to help raise funds, which they called “National Doughnut Day.” It’s not surprising that the deep-fried finger food was as popular at home as it had been abroad.
Today, donut shops around the country have continued the tradition for its marketing value. That’s why giant chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and Tim Hortons offer free donuts and dozens of deals to their customers on that first Friday in June. So while you’re enjoying your favorite fried treasure this weekend, take a moment to remember the kindness, innovation, and service that gave birth to this great American tradition.