America’s love affair with the doughnut can be directly traced to a resourceful Huntington woman who only wanted to give solders in the trenches during World War I a little bit of the feeling of home.
Helen Gay Purviance was born in Huntington in 1889. She moved to New York City at age 17 and joined the Salvation Army, graduating in 1914 as a captain. She was dispatched to France in 1917 as the United States entered World War I. The salvationists offered comfort to soldiers by sewing buttons on uniforms, writing letters home for them, and by baking treats. Helen and her fellow Salvation Army officers endured many of the same hardships the troops suffered.
On October 19, 1917, Ensign Purviance came up with the idea of making doughnuts for the soldiers. Stationed behind the American lines at Monte-sur-Soux, France, Purviance was attempting to make “some good American food” for the soldiers that would remind them of home.
The troops were equipped with standard-issue gas masks, steel helmets and revolvers, but with nothing to allow them to do any cooking. The makeshift stove they used was so small Purviance had to get on her knees to get to prepare doughnuts. There was no way to put a hole in the doughnut, so her first batches were made without holes. Nevertheless, they were enthusiastically received by the soldiers.
The 150 doughnuts made that first day were not nearly enough. Purviance scrounged what she could, including using a wine bottle to roll out the dough, and cobbled together a cutter to make a hole in the doughnut. The improvisations allowed Helen and her “Doughnut Girls” to eventually increase their daily output to 9,000 of the tasty treats.
It was estimated that Purviance made more than a million doughnuts for the soldiers, who kept their love for them after they returned home following the war. Purviance had created an American classic, and entrepreneurs capitalized. Adolph Levitt rolled out the first doughnut machine in 1920, and 10 years later had $25 million a year in sales. By 1938, National Donut Day was created to honor the Salvation Army “Doughnut Girls.”
Purviance stopped making donuts once she returned home, saying they reminded her of the horrors of war she had witnessed. She became known nationally and traveled the country to promote the Salvation Army, and along with her brother, Paul, helped establish a Salvation Army post in Huntington.
As World War II approached, Purviance, who had risen to the rank of brigadier, helped train Salvation Army candidates for working in war zones. By that time, the “All-American Cookie” had replaced the donut as the comfort food of choice for U.S. soldiers.
Purviance retired to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1957 as a lieutenant colonel in the Salvation Army. She returned to Indiana in 1984, and died that same year at the age of 95 at Peabody Retirement Community in North Manchester. She is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Huntington County.