The History of Donuts in America

Highly adaptable and fried to perfection, the donut makes a delicious treat. Its status in American culture is undeniable—more than a third of consumers eat donuts at least once a month. 

But how did it all begin? Here’s a little history lesson about the beloved donut.

In the Dough

Almost every culture has some form of fried dough dish, making it difficult to pinpoint the donut’s origins. In the United States, the donut’s roots date to the 1700s with the Dutch settlers’ olykoek (oil cake), the “grandpa of the donut”.1 In the early 19th century, donuts were mentioned in American food chapters of English cookbooks.2 

However, donuts didn’t flourish until World War I, when homesick American servicemen in France were served donuts in trenches by Salvation Army women volunteers—called Donut Lassies8—aiming to give them a comforting taste of home.3 When these men returned home after WWI, they craved more donuts—and the product began to thrive.

The Hole Truth?

The reason why donuts have holes in the middle is debatable. Some say it is to help ease digestion while others say it was to save on ingredients. However, the most popular theory dates to the mid-1800s where a New England ship captain, Hanson Gregory, was unhappy with the doughy consistency in the middle of the donuts served on the ship. Gregory suggested punching a hole in the middle so the insides of the donuts would cook evenly.3

What is certain is that a circle of dough cooks more evenly with a hole in the middle.

Dawn of a New Beginning

In 1920 Century Baking changed its name to Dawn Foods and owners Eugene Worden and Grover Lutz expanded in Jackson, Michigan, to accommodate production of their successful donut mix.

In New York City that same year, the first automatic donut machine was created by Adolph Levitt, who needed the creation at his bakery to keep up with the demand of hungry theatergoers.3 Customers now could enjoy the show of dough floating down a river of oil during the production process.

In 1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair, the donut was billed as “the food hit of the Century of Progress,” and in 1937 Vernon Rudolph purchased a secret recipe from a French chef in New Orleans for a yeast-raised donut and opened the first Krispy Kreme in North Carolina.4 The following year, in Chicago, the Salvation Army created National Donut Day to raise funds for the needy and to honor WWI’s Donut Lassies.7

During World War II, donuts again made their mark as American Red Cross female volunteers, later referred to as Donut Dollies, distributed donuts (and other sundries) in buses called Clubmobiles. About 100 of these vehicles were at the Invasion of Normandy in 1944.6

Six years later, in 1950, Bill Rosenberg opened Dunkin’ Donuts in Quincy, Massachusetts.5 In 1957, Dawn Foods purchased the Perkins Automatic Donut Machine division from Baker Perkins, leading Dawn to produce 2,000 dozen donuts hourly. Nearly 10 years later, in 1966, Dawn patented a machine that automatically turns donuts over to ice both sides and produces 1,000 dozen iced donuts per hour using the new machine in conjunction with Dawn fryers and conveyor systems.

Coming Through in ’72

1972 was a big year for donuts. Dawn developed innovative technology that helped solidify Dawn Raised A® donut mix as the industry standard; Entenmann’s launched the rich frosted donut (a chocolate-covered cakelike donut that was its bestseller for the next 41 years); and Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out the Munchkin.9

Toward the end of the millennium, donuts were on a roll. Krispy Kreme stores, a Southern stronghold, spread north and west—in 1997 its sales climbed 20 percent. Dunkin’ Donuts, meanwhile, maintained stores in twice as many states as Krispy Kreme and in 38 countries. In the last years of the 20th century, 10 billion donuts were made yearly in the United States.3

What does the future hold for this deep-fried sweet? In 2020, Dawn Foods celebrates 100 years in business and introduces its birthday cake donut. And there could be even more to celebrate as 82 percent of millennials and Gen Zers show an openness to adventurous varieties such as Sriracha, s’mores and pickle.10 With the business from its customers contributing to the company’s success, Dawn will keep innovating and help this delightful circle of dough continue its roll.

Learn more about the history of Dawn Foods.

 

  1. Oly Koek and Doughty Doughnut recipes / Sleepy Hollow,” inliterature.net
  2. Donut Anthropologist Answers All of Your Burning Donut Questions,” Time.com, 2014
  3. The History of the Doughnut,” Smithsonian.net, 1998
  4. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts History, kristykreme.ca
  5. About Dunkin’, dunkinbrands.com
  6. The Forgotten Doughnut Heroines of Wartime,” Messy Nessy, 2017
  7. Happy National Donut Day, salvationarmyusa.org
  8. The Women Who Fried Donuts and Dodged Bombs on the Front Lines of WWI,” Smithsonian.com, 2017
  9. A Short but Sweet History of Donuts,” Goodhousekeeping.com, 2013
  10. Unique Donut Tastes are Rising,” Dawn Foods Donut Day survey, 2018

Photo: Conway Photography