The History of the Doughnut

A look back at the men, women and machines that made America’s favorite treat possible

Jacqueline Moen

At the National Museum of American History one day last July, an upright piano stood on a stage. Beside it, on a wooden pallet, was a strange metal contraption about five feet high. The Ring King Jr., once America's most advanced automatic doughnut maker, had just been donated to the Smithsonian Institution by the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation. It was Krispy Kreme's 60th birthday.

In my own sixth or maybe seventh year, I remember stopping in at the green, red and white Krispy Kreme place in Alexandria, Virginia. There was a wide glass window behind the counter, and you could look in there at all those shiny conveyor belts and racks filled with fresh glazed doughnuts, and half swoon at the warmth and sweet vanilla richness of it all. At the Smithsonian dedication, the Ring King was saluted as a milestone in American doughnut history. Then a singer, Cindy Hutchins, stepped up to the mike and drawing on the museum's archive of popular sheet music (more than a million songs in all) sang, "Who made the doughnut with the hole in the middle? Just how it got there will be always a riddle."

Well, yes and no. It is true that the humble doughnut does have a convoluted past that involves Dutch immigrants, Russian exiles, French bakers, Irving Berlin, Clark Gable and a certain number of Native Americans. And, yes, in its democratic ethos, its optimism, and its assorted origins, it does seem rather quintessentially American.

Of course doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements. But the doughnut proper (if that's the right word) supposedly came to Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam) under the unappetizing Dutch name of olykoeks--"oily cakes."

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom's doughnuts on a spoke of his ship's wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut "the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

One likes to think that less was more. But in fact doughnuts didn't come into their own until World War I, when millions of homesick American doughboys met millions of doughnuts in the trenches of France. They were served up by women volunteers who even brought them to the front lines to give soldiers a tasty touch of home. When the doughboys came back from the war they had a natu-ral yen for more doughnuts. (The name "doughboy," though, didn't derive from doughnuts. It goes back to the relatively doughnutless Civil War, when the cavalry derided foot soldiers as doughboys, perhaps because their globular brass buttons resembled flour dumplings or because soldiers used flour to polish their white belts.)

The first doughnut machine did not come along until 1920, in New York City, when Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from czarist Russia, began selling fried doughnuts from his bakery. Hungry theater crowds pushed him to make a gadget that churned out the tasty rings faster, and he did.

Levitt's doughnut machine was the first sign that the doughnut, till then merely a taste sensation, could, in production, become a public spectacle. And so generations of kids like me, and adults, too, have stood transfixed by the Willy Wonka-like scene behind the glass of doughnut shops, learning in the process that the doughnut hole is built in, not cut out. There before them a circle of dough, shaped like a perfect smoke ring, and about the diameter of a baseball, dropped off into a vat of boiling oil, circulated, got turned over to brown on the other side, and emerged from the oil on a moving ramp, one by one like ducks in a row.

The machines grew more refined. The idea spread. By 1931, the New Yorker was whispering to its readers, "We can tell you a little about the doughnut-making place in Broadway," and described how "doughnuts float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket."

By then, Adolph Levitt's machines were earning him a dreamy $25 million a year, mostly from wholesale deliveries to bakers around the country. A company spokesman breathlessly reported that Levitt's machine had pulled the doughnut "out of the mire of prejudice that surrounded the heavy, grease-soaked product . . . and made it into a light, puffy product of a machine."

He had a point. By the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, doughnuts were poster material, billed as "the food hit of the Century of Progress." Seeing them produced "automatically" somehow made them part of the wave of the future. A doughnut cost less than a nickel, within reach of most of the Depression's victims. They were base and beloved. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, rugged newspaperman Clark Gable actually has to teach runaway heiress Claudette Colbert how to dunk. Often, doughnuts were sold with their own can-do philosophy. Singer Cindy Hutchins' mother recalls buying them after seeing movies at Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Theater. They came with a slip of paper to bolster the downtrodden: "As you go through life make this your goal: Watch the doughnut, not the hole."

It was in the 1930s, too, and half a country away from Levitt's busy Harlem bakery, that a Frenchman named Joe LeBeau made his way up from New Orleans to Paducah, Kentucky. Probably the hard times led him to sell his secret recipe (written out longhand on a slip of paper), and the name Krispy Kreme, to a local store owner named Ishmael Armstrong, who hired his nephew, Vernon Rudolph, and put him to work selling the treats door-to-door.

In 1937 young Vernon and two friends found themselves in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with just $25 between them. They borrowed ingredients (potatoes, sugar and milk) from a kindly grocer, stripped down to survive the heat of baking in July, and emerged with a fresh batch of Krispy Kremes, which they delivered in their 1936 Pontiac. That year, Joe Louis was heavyweight champ, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, and a popular song was proclaiming that you can live on doughnuts and coffee if "you're in love."

North Carolinians soon found their way to Rudolph's operation, and because it's hard to stay wholesale when the fragrance keeps issuing retail flyers for every batch, Rudolph, like Levitt before him, boosted local sales by letting the public see, as well as buy. Krispy Kreme still uses this wholesale/retail system, selling to grocery stores and to passersby who watch for the neon "Hot Doughnuts Now" sign to light up, signaling a fresh batch.

War seems to be a powerful stimulant to doughnut consumption. After all, doughnuts enlisted for World War II just as in World War I. Red Cross women, later known as Doughnut Dollies, doled them out. In his 1942 Army musical, Irving Berlin romanticized the doughnut further with a soldier who loses his heart at Broadway's Stage Door Canteen and eats his way through some anxious waiting: "I sat there dunking doughnuts till she caught on." Not surprisingly, Vernon Rudolph returned from military duty with thoughts of expanding his doughnut chain. And it was right about then, in the early 1950s, that the first Ring King started churning away in the back room.

By the late 1950s, in 29 Krispy Kreme store-factories in 12 states, individual Ring Kings like the Smithsonian's model were turning out something like 75 dozen doughnuts an hour. They faced stiff competition. Dunkin' Donuts, started in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950, has been flourishing ever since. By the early 1980s, the Ring King Jr. was obsolete; a fond memory for doughnut aficionados, it was replaced by newer and more elaborate equipment. Sadly, for a while there, the doughnut itself seemed to be going into decline, especially in New York where it was being challenged by the more urbane bagel. But my friends and I, doughnut-deprived college students in a small North Carolina town, thought nothing of a 20-mile journey to Charlotte at 1 A.M. for solace: coffee steaming on the counter, the usual night owl clientele, and fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

These days the redoubtable doughnut, made by Krispy Kreme and others, is riding high. Krispy Kreme stores, long best known in the South, are spreading North and West, and sales climbed 20 percent in 1997. Last February, the New Yorker described the Manhattan store as a "shrine" and once more detailed the doughnut-making process. (The new machines make 800 dozen doughnuts an hour--more than ten times as many as the Ring King Jr.--but still use the secret formula and doughnut mixes shipped from Winston-Salem.) Dunkin' Donuts has stores in twice as many states as Krispy Kreme, and in 37 other countries, and sells nearly five times as many doughnuts worldwide. In the United States alone, about 10 billion doughnuts are made every year, a mere 1.1 billion by Krispy Kreme. Small wonder one sees reprints of Robert McCloskey's famous children's book Homer Price, in which a major figure is a doughnut-making machine that runs amok.

Doughnut consumption figures do not encourage nutritionists, who like to point out that the average doughnut can carry a 300-calorie wallop, notable mainly for its sugar and fat. In fact, a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine bemoaned the unsaturated fat purveyed by the glazed doughnut. Famous chefs generally deplore the doughnut. But neither science nor culinary scorn nor outright scolding deters devotees, who variously describe Krispy Kreme's hot "original glazed" doughnut with terms like "angelic" or even "sugar-coated air."

David Shayt is one of the collections managers in charge of the Smithsonian's ongoing (and never ending) effort to acquire for the future significant artifacts from American technology and culture, so that the future will have a permanent record. For him and his colleagues, the old Ring King Jr., though it is now retired to storage, is as significant as a Colonial cast-iron cooking pot also in the Smithsonian collection, only more complex. Shayt is pleased that the Institution also has in storage four empty paper sacks each labeled with the proper ingredients for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "In 800 years, if America should lose the art of making doughnuts," he says, "we could help reconstruct how to do it." Maybe so. But to date nobody but Krispy Kreme has Joe LeBeau's secret recipe. That stays locked up in a safe in Winston-Salem.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.