The History of Donuts on Display at City Reliquary


Donuts from Peter Pan Donuts & Pastry Shop, one of the donut shops highlighted in Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut. Photo: Anna O. Grant.

Donuts from Peter Pan Donuts & Pastry Shop, one of the donut shops highlighted in Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut. Photo: Anna O. Grant.

If your knowledge about donuts begins and ends in a few bites, there’s a new exhibition at City Reliquary in Williamsburg looking to fill in the holes for you. Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut is entirely devoted to the beloved confection, charting its rise in popularity and the role New York City has played in the sweet treat’s mass appeal. From fun facts to ephemera, its curator Julie Thomson has amassed a well-rounded look at key moments in the donut’s history here in Brooklyn and Manhattan, following it from the city’s first donut shop on Broadway in 1673 to the battlefields of WWI up to current shops keeping the tradition alive today.

“In some ways, I’m really just trying to share my love of donuts with people and get them to see how wonderful they are,” Thomson says. “I think donuts are really popular right now, but I think it’s because it’s something that’s always been there, and I think, with donut history, the thing that I’ve learned is that there’s always kind of these references back–whether people mean to or not–to the history of how donuts have been made.”

Thomson has been blogging about her love of donuts for quite some time, and even created an audio documentary about the search for her favorite childhood flavor (it’s marble, a raised donut with vanilla icing lined with chocolate on top). She started putting together the exhibition for City Reliquary back in May, trolling antique shops and the internet for mugs, vintage advertisements, postcards, pins, plates and even an old bag of donut mix from the Doughnut Corporation of America and sheet music from old jingles.

Even the cronut makes an appearance. 

“I have not had one,” says Thomson, who used to live in Brooklyn but now lives in North Carolina, about the croissant-donut hybrid that’s causing such a dessert food frenzy people are lining up for hours outside the Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo to eat one. “But I mention them because I think it’s a new twist on the donut. People just went crazy for it and there was so much coverage.”

The title for the exhibition comes from the motto of Mayflower Doughnuts, the nation’s first donut shop chain, founded by Adolf Levitt, who invented the first automatic donut-making machine in New York City in 1920.

“As you ramble on thru life brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole!”

It was Levitt’s granddaughter Sally Levitt Steinberg, author of The Donut Book, who inspired Thomson so start the project in the first place.

“Her grandfather started the Doughnut Corporation of America,” Thomson says, “so she’s telling a history of donuts, but it’s also a personal story for her, too. She gave her collection, from while she was putting this book together, to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Back in May, when this exhibit was just starting to look like it was coming together and going to be possible, I visited her collection. Her collection and my own research inspired to form kind of my own collection, too.”

In all her digging, Thomson says she never came across another exhibit entirely devoted to donuts. Levitt-Steinberg’s collection is not on display, but part of the Nation Museum’s permanent archive.

“It’s not to say that there hasn’t been one, and I’m sure there could be a small one here or there–there have been some books, but those aren’t tied to exhibits,” she says. “There aren’t many homes I think and museums where a donut exhibit would be embraced, but that’s really the wonderful thing about the City Reliquary–they have a unique take on the city’s history and the things that people remember.”

“Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” opens at City Reliquary in Williamsburg on Saturday, Dec. 7, at 6pm. It will be on display through February 2014.

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