When the United States entered World War I, the Salvation Army was ready. Commander Evangeline Booth (1865-1950) sent a wire to President Woodrow Wilson, placing the personnel of The Salvation Army at his disposal in the United States for any service that it could provide.
The Salvation Army began to organize the War Work Council creating a War Service League. This League functioned in knitting and sewing circles, making sweaters, socks and other personal items. These were distributed through the Red Cross. The Salvation Army War Board began programs in US Army camps and canteens across the country. Many huts and hostels with canteen services were established. Food and beverages were provided for the soldiers, along with books, writing supplies and opportunities for recreation.
The overseas work was also important and received most of the publicity. Officers and men from the American Expeditionary Forces (including General Pershing) were most appreciative of the services provided. The Salvation Army personnel were sent directly to the front line, and moved with the AEF as they moved across France. These Huts were tent-like buildings where the famous doughnuts were created, along with pies, cakes and other home-baked goods.
The soldiers were given a "home away from home" and had the opportunity to sing, read, write letters, and attend church services.
Lt. Colonel Helen Purviance is considered the "first doughnut girl" of The Salvation Army. In 1917, the newly commissioned Ensign Purviance was sent to France. She and other Salvationists would conduct religious services, concerts and baked treats for the "doughboys". Using limited rations and an open stove, Helen and her fellow officers rolled out doughnuts. They rolled the dough using a wine bottle (they were in France !) and fried the dough over the fire. Soon the aroma drew the soldiers to the hut and they lined up, waiting for their turn. Only 150 doughnuts were made that first day; however, once the assembly line was created, up to 9,000 were made daily!
Along the front lines, the doughnuts became the symbol of The Salvation Army's will to bring a touch of home to the soldiers. A small token of sweetness, it has remained in the public's mind for many years as a symbol of warm friendship and service to those in need.