HELEN G. PURVIANCE
The First Salvation Army 'Doughnut Girl'
February 16, 1889- February 26, 1984
BY CONNOR MCBRIDE
Connor McBride is a graduate student of Public History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and intern for the Indiana State Historic Records Advisory Board. He received his B.S. in history from Indiana State University in 2015. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Of the heroes produced by the First World War, many are soldiers who are remembered for the bravery and sacrifice they displayed on the battlefield. While these soldiers certainly deserve their place of honor in history, one would be remiss not to mention those who worked so diligently and faithfully during the war to support and care for these troops of the United States. The Salvation Army was among the groups that dedicated their energies and support to the efforts of the United States forces in Europe. While the Salvation Army did a great deal to provide humanitarian relief to the soldiers, their involvement in World War I is often remembered for the actions of its “Doughnut Girls”, so named because they were remembered by the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces as those who provided coffee and doughnuts to those fighting in France. These Doughnut Girls often served alongside the troops at the frontlines, performing their duties amidst the chaos of nearby battle. The story of the Doughnut Girls and their place in the history of World War I begins with a young woman named Helen Purviance, a salvationist from Huntington, Indiana who had the idea for and cooked the first batch of doughnuts to serve to the troops in France.
While doughnuts and coffee may seem to be a small act, the impact it made upon the soldiers fighting at the front was significant. If we are to trust the words of the heroes themselves that fought in the trenches of France, Helen Purviance and the Doughnut Girls she led and inspired deserve their share of glory and a place in history among the heroes that helped to win the First World War.
Helen Gay Purviance was born on February 16, 1889 in the town of Huntington, Indiana. Her father, James, worked as a salesman at a hardware store while her mother, Ella, stayed at home to take care of her and four siblings. Helen was the second youngest child of the five, with her brother Paul, who would follow her into the Salvation Army, being the youngest.1 By age 11, Helen was spending the fall and spring attending school with her siblings in Rochester, though she regularly returned home during break periods to visit and enjoy time with her family.2 By age 17, Helen had moved to New York City and joined up with the Salvation Army, attending their training school.3 By 1914, Captain Helen Purviance of Oswego, New York had graduated as an active officer of the Salvation Army but still found time to return to Indiana to visit with her family regularly.45 This is something she would continue to do throughout the rest of her life, never forgetting the family and hometown from whence she came.
In April of 1917, the United State entered the First World War and the Salvation Army began to mobilize its own forces to support the United States forces. Helen Purviance was among the Salvation Army officers that departed on the 15 day journey for France on August 10, 1917.6 7 Purviance made her way to the front alongside an A.E.F. ammunition train of the First Division. The soldiers welcomed the aid and comfort that the salvationists offered, as they provided for both Christian and Jewish religious services, sewed buttons on uniforms, wrote letters home for the soldiers, and made baked treats that brought some comfort of home to the troops an ocean away from it.8 The Salvation Army set up huts along the front to which soldiers could go for these various needs to be helped as much as the salvationists were able to. Helen Purviance and her fellow Salvation Army officers endured many of the same hardships of camp life as the troops did as they worked to carry out their duties.9
A few months after arriving in France on October 19, 1917, Ensign Helen Purviance along with Captain Margaret Sheldon had the idea of making doughnuts for the soldiers. Stationed behind the American fighting lines at Monte-sur-Soux, France, Purviance reportedly was attempting to make “some good American food” for the soldiers that would remind them of home and provide some comfort.10 Their supplies were limited but with what they did have, Purviance and Sheldon realized that if they could get some eggs, they would be able to make doughnuts. Purviance was able to get some eggs from the French villagers and with the final ingredient, went about making the doughnuts. The stove they had to use was so small Purviance later remembered, “I had to get on my knees to get to do it.”11 In addition, they initially lacked many of the cooking tools that they would need to make doughnuts, including a way to put a hole in the doughnut. Her first batch of doughnuts were crudely shaped and without holes in the middle, but were received by the soldiers with overwhelming enthusiasm nonetheless. The first soldier in line to receive a doughnut was Private Braxton Zuber of Auburn, Alabama with whom Purviance would later become good friends. Upon eating the doughnut, Zuber reportedly exclaimed, “If this is war let it continue!”12
That first day, they were able to make 150 doughnuts which was not fast enough to keep up with the popularity of the doughnut amongst the troops and constantly rising demand as word spread.13 In order to meet the demand Purviance began to make tools for making the doughnuts out of what she had available. She initially used such tools as a wine bottle to roll out the dough for the doughnuts and the kettle she initially used could only make seven doughnuts at a time.14 15 After soldiers began to ask why the doughnuts didn’t have holes in them, Purviance began to make her own tools, salvaged from what she had. She found a French blacksmith in the village and brought him an empty evaporated milk can and a shaving cream tube. “He couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any French. But somehow I managed to get him to understand that I wanted these two things nailed together on a small block of wood.”16 This device served as their first doughnut cutter and produced much better-looking doughnuts at a far more rapid pace. As they eventually upgraded their equipment, they were able to make from 2,000 to 9,000 doughnuts a day.17 Soldiers greatly appreciated the doughnuts and coffee that these Salvation Army women provided as a touch of comfort away from home. The soldiers began referring to these women as ‘Doughnut Girls’ and some even demonstrated their gratitude by writing ‘thank you’ notes on scraps of paper in the trenches, writing poems for and about them, as well as battlefield “souvenirs” such as used shells, captured signal balloons, and German helmets captured from trench raids.18 The “Doughnut Girls” began a legacy that would forever be associated with the American war effort during World War I.
While the Salvation Army continued to provide aid and doughnuts to American forces behind American lines, four women determined that they wanted to bring the same aid to the battle front. At the beginning of the year in 1918, Helen Purviance and three other Salvation Army officers were admitted to the front lines, despite the reservations of General Pershing about allowingwomen close to the front.19 20 Equipped with standard issue gas masks, steel helmets, rubber blankets, and army revolvers; the four women departed for the front on the night of January 24, 1918 where Helen would be among the first women to arrive on the American front line.21 22 Purviance was prepared for the dangers that awaited her as she remembered multiple times when she was in danger. Artillery fire would rain down near to her hut on the front line, with one shell reportedly landing within ten feet of the hut but which thankfully turned out to be a “dud”. As Purviance remembers on one occasion, “it seemed the heavens just, naturally started to fall.”23 Apart from the dangers that accompanied life in a war zone, the forces of nature also imposed great hardships upon Helen and her comrades. She remembers shivering, trying to keep warm during the cold winter months and later said that she would have permanent marks on her feet where they had frozen and thawed out again.24 Despite these dangers, Helen and her fellow salvationists continued to carry out their mission diligently until the end of the war in November of 1918.
By the war’s end, now Adjutant Purviance had reportedly cooked overone million doughnuts alone and would arrive home with numerous stories, a great deal of fame, and “doughnut wrist” from her service in Europe.25 She was now known nationally as the “Doughnut Girl” or “Doughnut Queen” with multiple news sources publishing accounts of the origin of the World War I doughnut as well as what they purported to be the ‘original recipe’ for them.26 For her part, Helen Purviance became nationally famous and used her newfound celebrity to promote her organization. She spoke regularly at numerous church services and meetings throughout the United States, promoting the Salvation Army and, along with her brother Paul, would help to establish a Salvation Army post in her hometown of Huntington, IN.27 She would make numerous trips to the town where she grew up, visiting with friends and family as well as speaking on behalf of the Salvation Army. Back in New York, she would take charge of the Salvation Army post in Oswego, New York and by 1924 would be a member of the teaching staff training future members of the Salvation Army at its training school in the Bronx.28 29 She would continue her work at the school for the next decade and in 1936 would become dean of the training college.30
Even as she undertook various projects in the Salvation Army, her legacy as the first to make the Salvation Army doughnuts would follow her long after she returned from the war. Often for various events, she would participate by making and handing out doughnuts which helped to generate publicity. While some newspapers praised her return to civil work, including a Salvation Army homebeing dedicated through her work,31 much of her fame continued to center on the theme ofthe doughnut.32 She would be called upon multiple times to make doughnuts, often posing for photographs of her serving doughnuts at numerous events including the American Legion Conference in Paris in 1927.33 34 Doughnuts surged in popularity in the United States. Some estimates were reported that sales of doughnuts ended up increasing in 1937 to roughly ten times the amount they had been immediately following the war in 1920.35 With her fame being tied to the ever-increasing popularity of the doughnut, it is no wonder that in 1936 she exclaimed that she was “sick of doughnuts” and has tried to “keep as far away from them as I can.”36 Such efforts would inevitably prove futile as she would make numerous appearances distributing doughnuts to soldiers for decades to come.
As World War II approached, now Brigadier Helen Purviance prayed that the United States avoid the approaching conflict. Recalling the horrors she witnessed during the First World War and claiming that whenever the discussion of U.S. involvement in a second war is brought up, “Only those pictures come back to me.”37 The United States would enter war once again and Purviance would do her part by training Salvation Army candidates for work in the field. The “All-American Cookie” would come to replace the doughnut as a favorite of the soldiers, much to the delight of Purviance who was encouraging this. “The doughnut was an emergency article,” Purviance explained in a news interview, “We put it together with whatever ingredients and kitchen equipment were at hand.”38 Now with more prepared kitchens and staff, the cookie was the more requested treat and the Salvation Army was willing and able to provide it.
Helen Purviance’s legacy continues to inspire generations of humanitarian aid workers in the Salvation Army and across the United States. So much more than the woman who cooked the first batch of Salvation Army doughnuts in France, Purviance was a woman of humble beginnings who did not shy away from the call to service nor the danger that accompanied it. She was among the first eleven salvationists to go to France and among the first four to head to the front lines, demonstrating her fierce determination, unwavering in the face of warfare. Through her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, she was able to make the first doughnuts to support those who were fighting for their country, giving them some measure of peace and comfort amidst the turmoil of life in the trenches of the First World War. This spirit would stay with her after the war, following her into her civil service at home. It is this determination resourcefulness, and courage that Helen Purviance embodied throughout her life that earns her a place amongst the heroes of World War I.
1 "United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6XBW-Z9N?cc=1325221&wc=9BWC-W36%3A1030552501%2C1033793801%2C1033818301 : 5 August 2014), Indiana > Huntington > image 49 of 60; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
2 “About Town,” Daily News-Democrat (Huntington, IN), 05 Jan. 1904, 5.
3 “Warren,” The Huntington Herald (Huntington, IN), 06 Aug. 1909, 6.
4 “C.B. Van Buren Will Speak at the Indoor meeting of the Salvation Army,” The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY), 19 May 1914, 2.
5 Thyra Espenscheid, “Adjutant Purviance, the Original Salvation Army Doughnut Girl,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 18 Jun. 1925, 119.
6 “Goes to France for Red Cross,” Huntington Herald (Huntington, IN), 07 Aug. 1917, 4.
7 “Helen Purviance is Safe in France,” Huntington Herald (Huntington, IN), 25 Aug. 1917, 1.
8 “Brightens Life in Army Camp,” Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat (Keokuk, IA), 15 Oct. 1917, 2.
9 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976.
10 “Doughnut Queen,” The Eagle (Bryan, TX), 06 Jul. 1938, 4.
11 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976.
12 “‘Sick of Doughnuts,’ Says Girl Who First Made them for the A.E.F.,” Gettysburg Times (Gettysburg, PA), 16 May 1936, 2.
13 “Original Doughnut Girl Veteran of Many Battles, Tells How She Worked,” Greenville News (Greenville, SC), 20 Jan. 1919, 2.
14 “Doughnut Girl Admits Legend is False,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), 26 May 1949, 27.
15 “Under the Flag,” Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), 26 Nov. 1918, 2.
16 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976.
17 “The Doughnut with a Tradition,” Daily Times (New Philadelphia, OH), 20 May 1967, 1.
18 “Doughnut Girls get Souvenirs,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), 03 Aug. 1918, 3.
19 “Four Salvation Army Lassies at the Front,” Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, MT), 17 Feb. 1918, 1.
20 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976
21 “Four Salvation Army Lassies in Front Trenches,” Kane Republican (Kane, PA), 18 Feb. 1918, 1.
22 “American Girls Face Shell Fire in Line Strenches,” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, PA), 19 Feb. 1918, 2.
23 “Original Maker of Doughnuts is Battle Veteran,” News-Press (Fort Myers, FL), 21 Jan. 1919, 3.
24 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976.
25 “Doughnut Wrist Attacks S.A. Worker,” New Castle Herald (New Castle, PA), 19 Nov. 1918, 7.
26 “How to Make Those Famous Salvation Army Doughnuts,” El Paso Herald (El Paso, TX), 04 Apr. 1919, 17.
27 “Will Establish Salvation Post in Huntington Soon,” Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), 10 Jul. 1919, 5.
28 “Assigned to Oswego, N.Y.,” Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), 01 Aug. 1919, 18.
29 Thyra Espenscheid, “Adjutant Purviance, the Original Salvation Army Doughnut Girl,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 18 Jun. 1925, 119.
30 “The Salvation Army’s Doughnut Girl…,” Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), 17 May 1936, 14.
31 “Dedicate S.A. Home Obtained by Work of Miss Purviance,” Huntington Press (Huntington, IN), 28 Aug. 1920, 2.
32 “Doughnut Girl Now Leading Civil Work,” Daily Reporter (Greenfield, IN), 21 May 1920, 1.
33 “Helen Purviance Will Attend Paris Convention,” Huntington Press (Huntington, IN), 30 Aug. 1927, 6.
34 “Doughboys Get Doughnuts Again,” Waterloo Press (Waterloo, IN), 22 Sept. 1927, 3.
35 “J. G. Donley, “The Business World Today,” The Bee (Danville, VA), 10 Sept. 1937, 16.
36 “”Sick of Doughnuts,” Says Girl Who First Made Them for A.E.F.,” Gettysburg Times (Gettysburg, PA), 16May 1936, 2.
37 “Original “Doughnut Girl” Recalls Horrors of War,” Manitowoc Herald-Times (Manitowoc, WI), 22 Sept. 1939, 12.
38 Marguerite Young, All-America Cookie Replaces World War I’s Doughnut,” Shamokin News-Dispatch (Shamokin, PA), 21 Jan. 1942, 3.
39 “S.A. Officer, Who Made First Doughnut for GIs in War I, to Retire,” Rushville Republican (Rushville, IN), 25 May 1949, 6.
40 “News Items,” Iola Register (Iola, KS), 19 Oct. 1961, 5.
41 “Doughgirl Honored,” Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, IL), 26 Oct. 1964, 10.
42 Marian Nott, “Her Story Full of Holes,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), 07 May 1976.
43 Mount Hope Cemetery (Huntington, IN), Helen G. Purviance headstone, photographed by Richard Earl Post, Sr., 29 Mar. 2011, accessed at: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=67623816&PIpi=40330538.