The Salvation Army Doughnut Dollies of WW1
An interview with Sandra Maxwell
By Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force
Long before beginning any research on World War One for writing my books I knew about Doughnut Dollies. Somewhere back in the 1950’s or 60’s someone had told me what a Doughnut Dollie was. It could have been Mom or Dad, perhaps a teacher or librarian, or even Grandpa who had been a Doughboy in France in WW1 and had been served doughnuts at a Salvation Army mobile canteen or “Hut” as they were called. But, I can tell you there was so much more to the Doughnut Dollies than what I had known.
In 2016, I even physically met a Doughnut Dollie. It was at the Old Fort MacArthur Days Living History Event in San Pedro, California’s Angel’s Gate Park where I first met Robert and Sandra Maxwell, a husband and wife team who do a variety of reenactment personalities from history. That day Sandra was dressed in quite authentic garb of the Salvation Army WW1 volunteer known as the Doughnut Dollie, and in true fashion she was distributing doughnuts and knowledge of WW1.
In honor of the service of the Doughnut Dollies I interviewed Sandra recently and learned a lot more.
Co-Director Bill Betten: Sandra, for those not familiar with WW1, what was a Doughnut Dollie?
Sandra Maxwell: They were volunteers from the Salvation Army. Although long established in Britain, at this point in history, the Salvation Army was a new-comer to America. They were eager to help the war effort when America entered the fray, so their leader, Evangeline Booth, suggested to General Pershing that he allow her to send her soldiers to France. Bring a bit of home to the boys far from home. Remember, at this time, women helping during a war did not usually mean they were in the actual battle zone. Europe recognized the value of woman power both at home and on the battlefield, but not in America.
Bill: What did Doughnut Dollies do during the war?
Sandra: Commander Booth told her volunteers to serve simply by doing every useful, kindly thing that came to hand. Besides making coffee and doughnuts, they helped with nursing, read letters to the illiterate or wounded and helped them write letters home. They mended the soldier’s uniforms, brought music and moments of peace from the horrible war. Salvation Army girls became famous and loved for their smiles as well as their home cooking. I feel from all the research I have done that this simple idea of finding out what was needed and filling this need as best as possible was revolutionary as well as downright useful. I have a diary written by a Doughnut Dolly that makes this concept clear. For example, when this Dolly and her sister got back to the states, the first thing they saw as they wove their way through the mass of returning soldiers, was their need to send a message home that they had arrived and they were well. The girls ran to the nearest telegraph office and got forms to hand out to the boys. They collected all the messages and made sure they were sent. This led to the Salvation Army taking it upon themselves to provide a fill-in-the-blank telegram. All the soldier had to do was provide his name and who to send the telegram to and the SA did all the rest. It took about three years to get all the soldiers back to America and the SA kept up this service to the very end. No charge to the soldiers.
Bill: Why would the Doughboys get so excited about seeing a Doughnut Dollie? Didn't the soldiers get fed regularly on the line?
Sandra: (Laughing) Sure the soldiers were fed. Army food. Good for the stomach but not so much the soul. Dollies or Lassies cared for you. Made you feel at home, reminded you what you were fighting for. Listened to your troubles. Raised your morale. Helped you when you needed it. Not to mention give you a treat and a cup of coffee. By the way, the round treat with a hole in the middle did not happen until after the Doughnut Dollies had been there a short while. Although they served pies and crullers, the doughnut as we know it did not exist. Here we go with the “what do you need” concept the Salvation Army is known for. When the boys mentioned they were having trouble holding both a cruller and a cup of coffee, they wondered if the cruller could be made easier to handle, like maybe, put a hole in it? One of the guys with the Dollies created a round cookie cutter device with a round piece in the middle that would cut a hole in the dough and the doughnut as we know it today was born.
Bill: Were the Doughnut Dollies a part of the military?
Sandra: Yes and no. Although the Salvation Army is an international charitable Christian organization that operates in a somewhat military way with uniforms and military rankings, they were not IN the American army. However, they were attached to and protected by the American army. They were issued a helmet and a gas mask. If their particular division was ordered to move elsewhere, the Dollies went with them. The Salvation Army put up their tents or created kitchens out of the rubble of bombed out buildings wherever they could. Serving the men their doughnuts and coffee became their priority. Some fried as many as 2000 to 5000 doughnuts, rolls, cakes and pies each day. Once, a Dolly named Geneva Staley baked a birthday pie for General Pershing, who told her she had the power to reach any man’s heart.
Bill: How close to the fighting did they get?
Sandra: Pictures show the Dollies actually in the trenches helping read letters, bringing coffee and doughnuts to the soldiers. Trench warfare is different. When the war started the Germans did not expect the French to dig eight-foot-deep trenches and keep them at bay. The line is drawn here and you shall not pass idea. So, the German’s dug their trenches and the land between became the most dangerous place to be – No Man’s Land. This meant that some sectors became more active than others, activity changing positions at a moment’s notice. Soldiers could sit in the trench waiting for action for weeks, or even months. The pictures of the Dollies in the trenches were most likely taken during the breaks in the action. Not to say that the Salvation Army did not have their share of ducking bombs or dodging bullets, they did.
Bill: Were any of the Doughnut Dollies killed in action?
Sandra: So far, my research has not mentioned any Salvation Army people being killed or even wounded. If so, this information has eluded me. However, I am reminded of one Dolly by the name of Cora Van Norden. I brought notes, so I could remember it all. Let’s see, Cora was attached to the 18th U.S. Infantry, 1st Division. She was awarded the Silver Star Citation in 1918 for, “Her exceptionally gallant behavior on the night of May 16th, 1918 when, under shell fire and through gas alarm, Cora Van Norden ran her truck with necessary supplies to Serrevilliers. During the shelling she showed an utter disregard for her own safety, and valor beyond the call of duty.” Cora was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal five times, and both the Cross of the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guere from France. I mean, what a woman!
Bill: Why did these women leave the safety of their home, travel across an ocean to a foreign land and risk facing the enemy without a weapon?
Sandra: This question alone could take up several hours of discussion. This question led me to my study of World War One. It is a mere four years of World History, but the entire world changed dramatically. Whole countries disappeared; new ones came into being. Most of the aristocracy was obliterated. More men died than ever before; technology brought new and terrifying weapons and machinery. And what is so sad is that when I re-enact my Doughnut Dolly persona or answer questions after my lectures, most Americans don’t even know there was a World War One. American women do not know about the sacrifices the women before them made so that they can enjoy a more equal world with men. What made these women leave and risk their lives? Both on the home front and the battlefield, women saw an opportunity to be perceived as more than a weak, simple-minded being only good for keeping house and having babies, incapable of making their own decisions. They wanted and needed to show the world what they were capable of, along with the great desire to actually do something to keep the world free just like their men were doing. The Salvation Army was only one of many services that had women volunteers.
Bill: How many Doughnut Dollies would you say there were?
Sandra: I’ve read varying accounts stating different numbers, but I should think there were between 110 and 120. The Dollies were accompanied by Salvation Army men who did the driving, loading and helped put up the tents, again whatever was needed. They did not all go at once, but it did not take much time to get them all over there.
Bill: Is there a particular story you would like to share about a Doughnut Dollie?
Sandra: What a great question. Yes, there is. Miss Stella Young. She was nineteen when stationed in a sector that most troops passing through stopped at. Stella had a sweet, smiling face that became world famous when a Salvation Army photographer noticed her and asked to take her picture. This photo shows Stella wearing her Doughnut Dolly khaki smock and steel helmet holding a huge kettle full of doughnuts. The picture caught the fancy of wartime America, and became the symbol of the Salvation Army war effort. Here is her picture:
Bill: I find it interesting that our soldiers were called DOUGHboys and these volunteers were called DOUGHnut Dollies. Was there a connection in the name?
Sandra: You have no idea how many times I have been asked this question. First there is no connection between Doughnut Dollies and Doughboys. The endearment of calling the ladies dollies or lassies was a product of the time period. Remember, women had no rights and were still considered the lesser sex. Doughnuts were what they provided. Calling American soldiers Doughboy actually goes back before WWI but the reason for this nickname has been lost to history. Makes me wish I had a time machine so I could go back and ask someone why soldiers were called doughboys.
After interviewing Sandra, I also learned that besides facing the shelling of the enemy, the Salvation Army volunteers had to overcome other daily obstacles to their work. The rain, and harsh weather threatened them as did the lack of common, everyday facilities and conveniences. If a tool was lost in an attack, emergency replacements had to be made. One such substitution, using a spent artillery shell as a rolling pin, became commonplace.
The Doughnut Dollies or Lassies were just one part of a greater female effort during the war. Women working behind the lines included Army and Navy nurses, Navy and Marine women in support services, Hello Girls running communications at A.E.F. headquarters, religious volunteers dealing with soldier and civilian welfare, and even “society ladies” like Ann Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, who presented her Chateau Blérancourt to the American Fund for French Wounded, women played an important role in the war, often endangering their own lives while doing it.
In closing, I would like to share my own Doughnut Dollie story, but it is one of more modern times. Recently, I was helping a family member look for a used car. Being a precarious task that can involve losing your hard-earned cash to less than reputable strangers, we were relieved to find a proper vehicle at the Southern California Salvation Army Used Car Sales Lot in Orange County.
But, the real find came when we entered the office to finalize the deal. There hanging on the wall was an original United War Work Campaign poster from WW1 hanging framed on the wall. On it, a happy Doughboy gestures to the Salvation Army Lassie urging the viewer to "Keep Her on the Job." The folks who worked there in the office thought nothing of it, but for me it was like finding a long-lost treasure. You just don’t see them even in museums much any more. I began quizzing everyone there about its history and how it got there, but found no one really knew. “It’s just always hung there. I suppose someone drug it from out of storage somewhere,” the Salvation Army office manager replied.
How ever it got there, I’m glad to see it hangs in a building that continues the legacy of the Doughnut Dollies mission, doing God’s work, helping those in need.
Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force is an author and retired educator. See his biography here.