Doughnuts are old, historically speaking. Older than hot dogs or hamburgers. And just as American — or not, depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief in our native originality.
Nostalgic snobs would say we’ve just been stealing all along and getting things wrong in the bargain, like with the German Hamburger steak and the Frankfurter sausage, and what became of them once they immigrated here and their true destiny was revealed. If you care about history, you can find evidence of people — from all over — talking about doughnuts for the last two centuries, usually meaning an undifferentiated slab of dough (minus the hole), fried in hot lard. An idea waiting to be perfected.
And then it was — perfected — by a stroke of American genius when young Hanson Crockett Gregory, a baker’s apprentice and mere boy of 15, poked out the invariably sodden center of a just-fried cake and invented the modern doughnut. The place was Camden, Maine; the date, 1847.
It was another enterprising American, Adolph Levitt, age 37, who did not spend his time idly watching Red Cross workers pass out doughnuts in the First World War. Levitt invented a doughnut-making machine in 1920, theorizing that the novelty of the apparatus would create a demand for the ready-made flour mix which is what he was really hoping to sell. And he did, through the newly founded Donut Corporation of America.
It’s not so much the doughnuts — or donuts — themselves that signify, though, or even their mode of production. It’s what Americans did with doughnuts that makes them, and us, who we are. Nowadays, we’d probably call this the human-donut interface. Fifty years ago, nobody called it much of anything. But there’s no mistaking what was going on. It was in every way extraordinary, epochal and all ours.
The 1950s donut shop represents perhaps the greatest efflorescence of hope, aspiration and a native urge for futurity ever realized by Americans. I don’t mean the kind of place that existed before and still does: a mom-and-pop joint, a lunch counter or little diner maybe, with a homely pastry case in which reposed variously dissolving slices of pie, and possibly a forlorn doughnut or two. Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” depicts just such a spot, with the glutinous light and the disaffected hangers-on. Not that place, then, and not any of its Johnny-come-Rocket-lately, retro imitations, but something completely different. And real.
Timing here was crucial, with the donut house sited at the precise intersection of necessity and desire, when off-the-shelf technology converged upon a pent-up need to consume, which resulted in the gaudy excrescence of Donut-Moderne. Everybody remembers exactly such a place, or thinks they do — just ask around.
First, there’s the sign out front, which is crucial, and of a proper scale: a giant, stylized “chef” or “mister” or “king” all out of proportion with the car-driven store he presides over. As to the emporium itself, it’s adamant see-through — a commercial knock-off of the glass houses that name-brand architects were just then building in the 1950s. But no high-end exclusivity here. It’s a people’s place, this transparent sign-of-itself, with furnishings straight off the industrial shop floor, all polished chrome and tile, Formica and vinyl. And the colors, ah the colors. “Not-found-in-nature” doesn’t begin to describe the blues and greens and oranges, or give any hint of the preposterously inappropriate names they’d be called.
The roofs were pitched, at some off angle or other, for no reason related to necessity, any more than the slanted inclines of suburban ranch houses or the irrelevantly curving streets they were built on, in the denuded “subdivisions” that used to be farms — before we turned the corner, away from the War and the city, and headed out of town in the greatest migration ever undertaken by humans.
We weren’t just running away from the past, though. We were striking out, consciously, for a future that demanded a superfluity of space to reveal itself in. “Populuxe” is what Thomas Hine has called it, in his excellent neologism: the popular piling up of mass-market luxe, of which the donut house is the supreme expression. And a necessary one too.
It’s not just that consuming made Americans feel free. It’s that consuming made us — period. If the arsenal of democracy was to prosper in a peacetime world, new means would have to be found to dispose of the excess our economy was capable of producing. So we invented a Donut-Futurity, based on throwaway luxury and the giddy pleasure of difference for its own sake. It was a time of aqua and avocado, tailfins and chrome. “Fuel was cheap. We didn’t care about safety or weight,” or so said a former head designer at Ford looking back on those glory days, “and you could change every year if you made a mistake.”
And at the center of it all was the paradigmatic doughnut case, like a car dealer’s showroom at model change, with its endlessly replenishable stock of product, perpetually different and always the same, no matter the color of frosting or improbable sprinkles or outlandish flavors that got added to the dough. Up above, Sputnik lamps or else those great dangling luminescent globes endowed the whole affair with a theatrical, brand-new shine, as befits a production, which is what this was. Not so much a store as a way of seeing the future, summed up in a little All-American ring of dough.
The donut house was the embodiment, literally, of a future that has now receded into the past, where it gets condescended to knowingly, with a sly wink at the naive camp of that once-upon-a-time. Connoisseurship replaces belief. Retro irony rules. Trendy-somethings scour Goodwill stores for boomerang tables and pole lamps; they drive past Mr. Doughnut and don’t go in (too many calories.) But they stop to take a photograph, maybe, of the faded tomorrow that was.
So you say it wasn’t supposed to end this way, not by a long shot. But how else could it? Things happened we weren’t looking out for.Jerry Herron writes about visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com