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Lauren F. Winner

From Drum-Bangers to Doughnut-Fryers

Material culture, consumerism, and the transformation of the Salvation Army.

For most Americans, the Salvation Army is a trusted, if peripheral, organization: We are happy to toss loose change into the Army's shopping-mall kettles at Christmastime, and are relieved to know that their cheerful employees will take unfashionable clothes and tattered children's toys off our hands once or twice a year, leaving us with more closet space and a welcome tax deduction. Many of those who pull into the Salvation Army's parking lot to unload boxes of polyester knit suits and fraying sweaters from their station wagons do not seem aware that the roots of this established charity are religious. The last time I made a run by the Salvation Army— I was finally parting with shorts and skirts I hadn't been able to get into since ninth grade—I overheard a trim Jewish woman commenting to her friend that she was thrilled to have access to a Salvation Army: she'd just moved from a small town in northern Florida where the only philanthropic shop had been run by a Baptist organization, and she "just didn't feel comfortable donating to a Christian charity, regardless of how much good work they do."

The origins of the Salvation Army, of course, are every bit as religious as those of any Baptist orphanage. Founded in midnineteenth-century England by William Booth, the Army began as a rag-tag mission devoted to evangelizing London's poor. Booth, whose theology was influenced by classic holiness teachings as well as by Wesleyan revivalism, Quakerism, and Methodism, was a flamboyant leader who believed that any publicity was good publicity. As Diane Winston writes in her new study of the Army, Booth understood that "to capture the unchurched, no less than practicing Christians, the Army first had to attract their attention." (Case in point: The Salvation Army arrived in America in 1872, but it floundered until the 1880 arrival of George Scott Railton and seven "hallelujah lassies," who disembarked their ship at a Manhattan port waving the brightly colored Salvationist banner and convening an impromptu press conference on the spot.)

Although two important studies of the Salvation Army have appeared within the last five years—the second edition of Edward McKinley's standard history, Marching to Glory: The History of the Salvation Army in the United States, 1880-1992 (Eerdmans, 1995), and Norman Murdoch's Origins of the Salvation Army (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1994)—Diane Winston's long-awaited Red-Hot and Righteous is far from redundant. More than any previous writer, Winston has done justice to the complex, contradictory movement of the Salvation Army.

Winston's narrative, spanning the period from 1880 to 1950, centers on questions of consumer culture. Material culture and consumerism are buzz words among historians these days, and often it seems that scholars invoke material culture even when it adds nothing to the story. Winston, however, is not guilty of that charge; her book provides an example of the study of material culture done right.

Gilded Age New York, the setting of Winston's tale, was a flashy, glittering world of consumer goods that were widely available for the first time. Coupled with the new power of the purse (particularly for women, who were working outside of the home and thus in control of salaries of their own, in ever-increasing numbers) and the rise of advertising, this explosion of commerce created a consumer-oriented world that posed both new challenges and new opportunities to evangelical Christians. Fashion and entertainment were particularly important sites of consumption, with young singles spending money on the latest sartorial styles and forking over significant chunks of their paychecks to the ever-changing world of theaters and cabarets.

This consumer culture, Winston suggests, provides the key to understanding the history of the Salvation Army. Determined to sacralize the secular, the Army did not hesitate to adopt both performed entertainment and material objects for use in their spiritual purposes: Salvationists would fight the Devil with the Devil's tools. In an era where devotions took place in the privacy of one's home or in the dignified silence of a neighborhood church, reputable Victorian Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic looked askance at boisterous public displays of piety. The Army, however, paid the uptight establishment no mind, and, reimagining the Great White Way as a cathedral of open air, took religion out of the home and chapel and into the streets. Seeking to make religion every bit as attractive as the theater, Salvationists banged drums, belted hymns set to the tunes of contemporary pub-house choruses, and marched and tooted their way up the island of Manhattan. (In this respect, the representation of the Save-a-Soul mission in Guys and Dolls was not too off base.)

Like many other evangelical Christians from George Whitefield to Billy Graham, the Army seized new technology as soon as it was available and used it for the promotion of the gospel. In the summer of 1895, a new Army headquarters building opened on 14th Street, and for the buildings designers had spared no expense in mimicking the electrified signs that were the new fad in theater advertising. As the New York Times reported, "An electric button was pushed and upon the summit of the central tower appeared a device of incandescent lights. The letter 'S' in white lamps was entwined around a cross of scarlet lamps; underneath was the letter 'A' in white lamps. It is attested that this electrical combination can be seen from the Narrows."

By the early twentieth century, the Army was staging its own theater productions, with New Yorkers filling the 6,000-seat Hippodrome theater to watch Army leader Evangeline Booth perform in Salvationist productions that required elaborate costumes, huge choruses, and a variety of props, including live lambs and sheep, and, at least once, a horse. (It is no coincidence that such extravaganzas call to mind Aimee Semple McPherson's lavish productions, so well documented in Edith Blumhoffer and Daniel Mark Epstein's recent biographies: Minnie Kennedy, McPherson's mother, was a devoted Salvationist in Canada, where Evangeline Booth headed the Salvation forces until 1904.)

In addition to the Army's pageants, plays, and musical extravaganzas, Winston explores one distinctive feature of Salvation life where the material and the performative came together: uniforms. In an era when "city dwellers were intrigued by masquerade as a means to re-create or reposition the self," Winston writes, "Salvationists made strategic use of costumes and disguises." For women in particular, donning the severe Salvation uniform—a plain dress of navy blue and a bonnet trimmed with silk—was a rite of passage. Stepping into the uniform was no less significant for "Salvation lassies" than assuming the habit was for Roman Catholic nuns: it symbolized a woman's adoption of Salvationist teachings, and often young women found wearing the asexual and drab outfit "the ultimate test." The Salvationist paper, The War Cry, was regularly filled with stories and "true" vignettes that urged women to abandon the vagaries of fashion—and all the superficialities fashion represented—in favor of the Army uniform. One 1889 article put it this way:

The Hallelujah bonnet was lying on the side of the bed while she sat looking at it. Should she wear it or shouldn't she? "It's not necessary," a voice whispered in her ear, but an other voice said it would glorify God and disappoint the devil. But it meant separation from her relatives and friends and perhaps exile from the home of her childhood. Just then she noticed that the strings of the bonnet which she had carelessly thrown on the bed formed a cross, hanging down the side. It was a new revelation to her. "My cross," she said. "Dear Jesus, help me to deny myself and bear it, and wear it henceforth for thee."

That same year, Maude Booth, then head of the American Army (with her husband, Bramble Booth), wrote in The War Cry, "I know that the wearing of the uniform has always been, and will always be, to a certain extent, a cross."

If the Salvation Army was originally scandalously sensationalistic and in decorous, it gradually became—to use Weber's term—routinized. So too, if preaching the gospel and saving souls initially lay at the heart of the Army's mission, philanthropy gradually be came the center of the institution, leaving us today with an organization of whose religious roots donors may be ignorant. These two shifts were related and occurred primarily under the tenure of Evangeline Booth, who headed the American Army for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Evangelizing and serving the poor had always been central to the Army's mission, with the Army in New York running soup kitchens and bread lines, shelters for the homeless, maternity wards, nurseries, and children's wards. But during its first decades, the core of Army work was converting individuals. As Winston puts it, "Army leaders were explicit: political or social efforts alone would not bring about reform; only a changed heart could do that." The Army's boisterous parades and outdoor sermons were thus inseparable from their homeless shelters.

In the 1890s, the Army was at its most outspoken about social issues, aiding striking Pullman workers, de crying lynching, and, in the wake of Joseph Reis's 1890 muckraker How the Other Half Lives, criticizing the culture of capitalism that gave rise to immense poverty and suffering. Under Evangeline Booth's leadership, the Army grew friendlier to corporations and big money. Booth—who herself lived in a sprawling estate in Hartsdale, New York—shored up the Army's ties with business and capital. In part, Booth was motivated by the need to raise money for an ever-expanding budget: between 1904 and 1913, the Army's relief institutions in creased from 195 to 413, and the Army, which under Booth was also snapping up real estate holdings, had to finance its ventures somehow.

In his parallel account of this shift in emphasis, Norman Murdoch traces the Army's increasing concentration on social services directly to the "failure to win the masses of city slums to the gospel." But this failure, Murdoch adds, "did not persuade Booth to relinquish his desire to establish a godly kingdom among people disinclined to embrace it." Rather, the failure dictated a change in tactics. While Murdoch's narrative focuses on the Army in England, his conclusions are relevant to the American branch as well.

As Evangeline Booth's tenure continued, the Army's participation in explicitly nonsectarian—even secular—good works increased. During World War I, the Salvation Army sent unpaid "Sallies"—female Salvation workers—to the front to look after, care for, and "mother" American soldiers. Although the Sallies led prayer meetings, the bulk of their time was devoted to mending uniforms and darning socks, helping write letters home, and, above all, cooking. One Sallie's journal entry, where a prayer meeting receives mention but the main point is about food preparation, is illustrative:

Well, I must tell you how the days are spent. We open the hut at 7: it is cleaned by some of the boys: then at 8 we commence to serve cocoa and coffee and make pies and doughnuts, cup cakes and fry eggs and make all kinds of eats until it is all you see. Well you can think of two women cooking in one day 2,500 doughnuts, eight dozen cup cakes, fifty pies, 800 pan cakes and 225 gallons of cocoa, and one other girl serving it. That is a day's work in my last hut. Then meeting at night, and it lasts for two hours.

Just as material culture is central to Winston's discussion of the Army's earliest, most explicitly evangelical incarnation, it also lies at the heart of her analysis of the philanthropic impulses the Army embodied by World War I. Those 2,500 doughnuts were no mere snack, Winston argues. Two quick thinking Sallies who arrived at a camp in Montiers lacked the supplies to bake pies or cakes, but doughnuts were feasible. On the first night, Margaret Sheldon and Helen Purviance managed a mere 150 crullers, but soon they were turning out 9,000 a day. Soon the Sallies and their baked goods were being commemorated in Tin Pan Alley tunes ("My Doughnut Girl") and Hollywood films such as Fires of Faith.

What has all this to do with the Salvation Army's transition from evangelism to charity? Winston argues that the doughnut

was more than fried dough for the men at the front and the Sallies who served them. For the Army it symbolized the secular expression of its Holiness theology and activist orientation. Finding a balance between its spiritual mission and its pragmatic philosophy had led the Army into a wide range of humanitarian activities. But few of these were as easy to grasp, as universally appreciated, and as evocatively rendered as the battlefield doughnut.

For American observers, the doughnut somehow had finally achieved that blend of the religious and secular that the Salvation Army had long sought. As one secular war correspondent wrote, the Sallies "seem to be just as religious when frying dough-nuts … as when mounted on a cracker-box for a pulpit . …They let the work of their hands do most of the preaching without ever for an instant forgetting that there's a big idea somewhere that inspires them." The doughnut was loaded with secular meanings. "A treat rather a than a staple," Winston writes, "it signified comfort and well-being to soldiers whose lives were otherwise marked by danger and privation. Since cooking was so difficult in wartime conditions, it also represented love and sacrifice. Evoking memories of home—a whiff of a family kitchen—the doughnuts were redolent of the ideals for which the soldiers fought." But it also was weighted with religious significance. The community that was forged in the coming together for coffee and doughnuts, the "simple circle [that] was a traditional symbol for wholeness" and the "sacred and ritual meaning" of bread itself, "the staff of life, the sustaining manna." Breaking bread, Winston reminds us, "was at the heart of the Catholic Mass, the Protestant Communion, and the Jewish Sabbath," and, perhaps less convincingly, she muses that "frying thousands of doughnuts per day" suggested "the multiplying of loaves and fishes."

If the reader suspects that the historian has merely superimposed weighty meaning on a simple pastry, it is worth noting that contemporary Americans also understood the many-layered meaning of the doughnut. "The Salvation Army Doughnut," a 1918 "paean to the cruller," makes this clear:

A doughnut's just a doughnut, boys, til you are "over there"

And day and night you're in a trench away in France somewhere;

You get a fresh-made doughnut, seems it comes from heaven above,

That doughnut, boys, reminds you of a slice of mother's love.

A doughnut's just a doughnut, boys, when times of peace prevail,

But in the midst of worse than Hell where devil's powers assail,

Where rage and hate and murder strike their hellish deadly blows

The doughnut's a sweet-scented wreath which in God's garden grows.

The doughnut, Winston argues, was key to the Army's evolution into an established, ecumenical charity. A harmless, all-American sweet, the doughnut "disguised the Army's sectarian strain with a generalized religiosity" acceptable to all. If, as Winston suggests, Holiness theology sustained the Sallies on the front and "empowered" them to "fry up hundreds of doughnuts each day … most Americans simply saw a religion of good works." The Army capitalized on this, making the doughnut the centerpiece of their fundraising efforts, raking in an unprecedented $13 million in 1919 alone ($5,550 of which was raised auctioning off a single doughnut fried by Evangeline Booth).

Their doughnuts and their devoted service during World War I catapulted the Salvation Army to the top of American charities, but it also signaled a shift from the Army as religion to the Army as philanthropy. Winston argues that by 1919 the "institutionalization that Evangeline Booth had spearheaded was finally complete: the public perception of the Army had been transformed." An American's description of the Salvation Army after the Great War would bear almost no resemblance to a description penned 40 years earlier. Far from viewing the Army as an obstreperous, offensive band of evangelists, Americans now came to see the Salvation Army as, in Winston's words,

a religiously inspired organization that reflected Americans' most cherished ideals: God, home, and country. The Army's success sprang from its acceptance of this secular trinity-a credo for living that hallowed the society's core values but that differed significantly from the key Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Rather than spiritualizing the profane, the Army's message had become diffuse, able to be absorbed by a religiously diverse society.

That the American public began perceiving the Salvation Army as a nonsectarian philanthropic organization is well and good, but Winston's reader may come away with the impression that this is all there is to the Army today. It is worth remembering that salvation re mains at the center of Army life. As Capt. Ed Loomis of the Army's national headquarters puts it, the gospel "is our mainstay." In addition to helping the needy, the Army functions as a full-fledged denomination, holding weekly Bible studies and worship services in more than 1,300 worship centers throughout the United States. "If someone from a Nazarene church or a Methodist church walked in on Sunday morning," says Loomis, "they'd feel right at home." The evangelistic impulses of the Army have remained vibrant, along with its distinctive material culture. "The only thing is," Loomis adds, "some folks are put off by the uniform. Some folks love it, but some are a little put off by it."

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