Doughnut girls

A vintage picture of a Doughtnut Girl plying her trade with the troops. (Picture provided)

During a recent meeting with Lt. Stacy McNeil of the Ithaca Salvation Army, an unexpected topic arose.

I wanted to talk with her about her assignment here in Ithaca—a fairly new assignment, just under one year. Along with her husband, Lt. Shaun McNeil, the couple arrived in Ithaca to serve here from their first official assignment in Ogdensburg, New York. Now living in Lansing with their daughters Madison, 14, and Emily, 13, McNeil tells me they are “loving every second here.” Shaun, who was born into the Salvation Army family, along with McNeil, both knew ministry was going to be part of their lives. Next year, after five years of service, both will be promoted to captains.

McNeil particularly enjoys working with youth, and recently supervised six teenagers at a youth council event in Penn Yan, New York. She is proud that the Salvation Army youth band and the dance troupe have performed so well in recent events.

But as often happens during an interview, another story pops up (perhaps “the story behind the story”). McNeil mentioned an upcoming Salvation Army event from 9 to 11 a.m. on Friday, June 7 at their 150 N. Albany St. location in Ithaca. To recognize National Doughnut Day, started by the Salvation Army during World War I, there will be free doughnuts and coffee served and costumed “doughnut girls” to assist.

Googling “doughnut girls,” turns up some further information and context for the upcoming celebration. During World War I, the Salvation Army sent women to France to lift the spirits of the soldiers, and to serve them comfort food. Since the food of choice was hot doughnuts, the women became known as “doughnut girls,” which is what will be commemorated this weekend at the Ithaca event.

Evangeline Booth, Commander of the United Statesfor the Salvation Army at the time (April 1917), placed the entire Salvation Army in the United States on a war-service basis. Hostels, service centers and restrooms were provided wherever American troops were stationed, some right at the front line where the women as well as men were in danger. In October 1917, Ensigns Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon decided to lift the spirits of the troops by providing some real home cooking. With only flour, sugar, lard, baking powder, cinnamon, and canned milk available, it was agreed they would make and serve doughnuts. The dough was patted into shape by hand and fried in a small pan. The tempting fragrance drew in the homesick soldiers and they lined up for a taste. The amount served quickly went from 150 to 9,000 doughnuts daily.

Later, Ensign Purviance had an elderly French blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter by fastening the top of a condensed milk can and a camphor ice tube to a wooden block. One soldier, whose letter was reprinted in The Boston Globe, wrote, “Can you imagine hot doughnuts and pie and all that sort of stuff? And served by mighty good-looking girls, too.” The soldiers soon began referring to the Salvation Army ladies as “doughnut girls,” and the simple doughnut became a symbol of all that the Salvation Army was doing to ease the hardships of the front line-fighting men, which also included religious services, concerts, and a clothes-mending service.

In honor of those brave World War I soldiers and the brave Salvation Army “doughnut girls,” remember to stop by the Salvation Army Center from 9 to 11 a.m. on June 7 for that most wonderful of inventions: the doughnut. Salvation Army board members are wanted for the future to serve as the eyes and ears of the community, advising on how to best serve where there is the most need. Anyone interested is invited to call to speak with either McNeil or her husband at (607) 273-2400.

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