Meet Helen Purviance: Donut Girl, Salvationist, and Trailblazer

May 30, 2023

In 1917, mere months after the United States entered WWI, twelve brave, young Salvationists were motivated by the love of God to travel to France with the American First Division. One of them was the newly commissioned Helen Purviance. At only 28 years old, Helen was stationed behind the frontlines wearing U.S. Army regulation gear with the mission to provide comfort, support, and care for the soldiers. In doing so she fearlessly broke barriers for women, who were banned from joining the armed forces or even being on the front line of any U.S. conflict until 1948, nearly 30 years after Helen returned home after the war. Helen Purviance is responsible for the donut becoming a symbol of The Salvation Army’s continuous work, overcoming adversity, and caring for others without discrimination.

The Salvationists arrived in France with the initial intent to “say hello, hand out some chocolate bars and move on,” Helen later explained in an interview, “but we stayed.” The U.S. Army built a hut with spare materials where the Salvationists, most of whom were women, cooked and slept. As the war progressed, Helen and the other Salvationists aided the soldiers by writing letters, providing reading materials, sewing uniforms, and even offering concerts and religious services to uplift the soldiers and keep hopes high. 

A few months after arriving, Helen and fellow Salvationist Margaret Sheldon went on a Sunday afternoon walk to discuss how to further provide for the soldiers. They were struggling because there were limited available supplies and ingredients. After a walk to the commissary, they came up with the idea to bring donuts to France. Donuts were brought to the United States in the 1600s by the Dutch, but it was not until after WWI that they gained popularity due to Helen and the donut girls! The donut girls also made crullers and fudge; however, the donuts were most popular among the soldiers. There was no refrigeration on the front lines, but winter in France meant it was cold enough outside for the fudge to set on its own!

Helen and her crew were cooking for hours upon hours, making about 150 donuts on the first day, and eventually anywhere from 2,500-9,000 per day once they were fully equipped. The donuts were fried using a potbellied stove that was placed so low that, as Helen remarked, the women had to cook on their knees. Helen recalled, “I was literally on my knees when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frypan.” Helen and the rest of the donut girls had to use their ingenuity to improvise as they continued to make donuts. She approached the local blacksmith to create a donut cutter using “the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube to a wooden block.” Other improvisations include wine bottles and large shell casings as rolling pins and the top of a coffee percolator to make the holes. 

According to Helen, she prayed “that somehow this home touch would do more for those who ate the doughnuts than satisfy a physical hunger.” The donuts served not only a physical purpose, but also became a nostalgic treat, cheering up the soldiers and giving them a taste of home. The donut became a symbol of The Salvation Army’s mission to provide love and spread the gospel under all circumstances, even the trenches. The first man to be served a donut was Private Braxton Zuber, who exclaimed, “If this is war, let it continue!” For Private Zuber, the Salvationists' donuts fed his spiritual hunger, too. When he returned home, he became a Christian, was active in a local church, and led the congregation when the minister was away. The soldiers, soon also known as “doughboys,” sang The Salvation Army’s praises in letters home. A New York war correspondent wrote, “After two weeks at the front, I take off my hat to The Salvation Army. The American soldiers take off their hats to The Salvation Army, and when memoirs of this [war come] to be written, the doughnuts and apple pies of The Salvation Army are going to take their place in history.” 

Helen returned at the end of the war, but that did not mark the end of her humanitarian career with The Salvation Army. Helen was the first person in the Eastern Territory to receive the Long Service Order Award, which honors 25 years of continuous service as a Salvation Army officer. She was an officer until her retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1949. In 1981, her work was honored by a special delegation from the National World War I Veterans National Convention and she was named the original Salvation Army donut girl. Helen recalled in a 1980 interview with Brigadier Christine McMillian, “I always feel very amused when they refer now to anybody who was overseas, they say ‘one of the original doughnut girls’. That strikes me funny, for there were many ‘originals’ and many ‘firsts’!”  

On National Donut Day, June 2, we remember Helen Purviance as the original donut girl who showed love and support to others in trying times, who broke barriers, spread the gospel, and demonstrated The Salvation Army's message with courage and passion. Her character is mirrored by the fortitude of Salvation Army officers, employees, and volunteers who serve every day with the same passion, compassion, bravery, and faith that Helen Purviance did in 1917 and throughout her life.

Today, The Salvation Army in the United States is on the frontlines confronting homelessness, hunger, substance abuse and more through nearly 7,000 centers of operation across the country. When disaster strikes, The Salvation Army mobilizes its forces of emergency services to provide immediate care when people are facing their greatest need. To learn more about National Donut Day and The Salvation Army’s mission, visit

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