The Origin Of Square Donuts (& Why They're Historically Round)

Sometimes changing the shape of something changes everything — including our perception of what's possible within a form. Had there not been established shapes associated with pastries like the donut and croissant, for instance, little excitement would have attended the creation of the cronut. Instead, Chef Dominique Ansel's hybrid between the two forms inspired a social media frenzy when it premiered in 2013.

In the case of donuts, the standardized form was established more recently than one might think. Although donuts have been around since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the circular ring shape we now associate with them — think Krispy Kreme's original glazed version — wasn't pioneered until the 19th century, when New Englander Elizabeth George initiated the practice. Her son, a merchant sailing captain, reportedly introduced the first donut hole after impaling an example of his mother's work on his ship's wheel during inclement weather.

Despite the innovation, donuts didn't become popular in the U.S. until the advent of the First World War. The instigating factor was not the war itself but the Salvation Army's famed "donut lassies," volunteers who fried up the treats for soldiers. These heroic women made as many as 9,000 donuts a day for the aptly named "doughboys," and yes, they were all in the now traditional ring shape. Hoosier Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon were responsible for the idea.

Purviance may have been the first Hoosier to rewrite donut history, but she certainly wouldn't be the last.

How one man reimagined the donut

Richard Comer Sr. was such a remarkable man that any of a dozen achievements might have served as his legacy. For example, he was a good enough football player to earn an NFL tryout and was reportedly a pro-caliber bowler. He also served with distinction in the U.S. Marine Corps and was a long-time assistant football coach at a local university. But because he invented the square donut, that's what people remember.

A Lafayette, Indiana native, Comer first devised the idea in 1967. The innovative shape proved so popular that he eventually changed the name of his Terre Haute-based Tasty Creme donut shop to Square Donuts. The latter name, by the way, is still proudly used today, more than 50 years after the invention of the unusual donut variation by Square Donut shops in Terre Haute and Bloomington, Indiana.

What drove Comer to upend traditional donut aesthetics? Perhaps it was simply a marketing idea. After all, less than two years after his invention, Comer had made the donuts the centerpiece of his company slogan, per Terre Haute's Tribune-Star: "Don't Be a Square, Try Our Square Donuts." Comer never explained his motivation, and as he passed away in 2015, we'll probably never know what inspired him. One thing is for sure, however. He provided powerful trend-bucking inspiration to subsequent bakers, from Dominique Ansel to the man who invented cube-shaped croissants.