The History of the Doughnut in America

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

The history of the doughnut is one widely debated by pastry historians across the world. But the beloved round cake, deep fried and topped with glaze, chocolate, sprinkles (or nothing at all) has become a culinary representation of Americanness. It’s an affordable treat that most Americans can afford – democratic in its distribution. At the same time, it’s construction is pure innovation, solving the age-old problem of soggy middle bits of deep fried dough by taking out the middle altogether. It’s an American cliche at its worst, painting images of lazy cops in sleepy American towns dunking doughnut after doughnut into paper cups filled with coffee.

And, the most American trait of all, the doughnut gained its stardom by none other than an immigrant.

The history of the doughnut

Adolph Levitt was a Jewish refugee who came to America fleeing czarist Russia. Once here, he saw that post-World War I was craving a particular breakfast pastry in higher numbers than before the war. Levitt saw the demand for doughnuts at an all-time high since their invention, and capitalizing on the potential of this simple pastry, he invented the first doughnut machine in 1920.

The Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine churned out doughnuts at an unprecedented pace. The machine became a local spectacle in Levitt’s Harlem neighborhood in New York City and soon, his business became a city-wide and then a country-wide phenomenon. Doughnuts starred as the featured food of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, where they were touted as a symbol of American progress. They were made by a machine, after all.

But the story of the doughnut doesn’t end there. Levitt’s business grew and he eventually founded the Doughnut Corporation of America and Mayflower Doughnut shops. He became a wholesaler, distributing doughnuts to bakeries around the U.S., and his business was finally worth an astounding $25 million.

The story of the doughnut in America is just one example of all the small ways immigrants have impacted everyday life in the United States and continue to do so today.

Adolph Levitt and his American doughnut are just two reasons we’re thankful for immigrants.

For more stories of how immigrants help make America great, read our ebook: A Whole New World: Through the Eyes of Immigrants.