Business and Labor

The Maine Ship Captain Who Invented the Modern Donut

In 1847, a Maine ship captain invented the donut as we know it today – with a hole.

On the day Lewis Hine took the photo of a waitress next to a plate of donuts (with holes), Capt. Hansen Gregory lived in the next town. He was telling his cronies how he’d gotten the great inspiration to cut a hole in a donut.


14-year-old waitress at the Exchange Luncheon in South Boston. Photo, by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy Library of Congress.

Captain Gregory, 85, lived at the Sailor’s Snug Harbor in Quincy, Mass. His fame as the inventor of the modern donut had spread, and the Washington Post interviewed him in a story published March 26, 1916.

He told the reporter he discovered the donut hole when he worked as a 16-year-old crewman on a lime-trading schooner.

“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted,” he said. “I don’t think we called them donuts then–they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’ Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”

First Donut

He asked himself if a space inside the dough would solve the difficulty – and then came the great inspiration.

“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and—I cut into the middle of that donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!”

Gregory, born in 1832, would have had his insight around 1858. According to the New York Times, he rose to second mate at 19, mate at 21 and master mariner at 25. He sailed in all kinds of vessels from the lime coaster to a full-rigged ship.


A plaque at Nativity Lutheran Church pays homage to an iconic food. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

But the donut made him famous. He had asked a tinsmith to fabricate a donut cutter for him, and soon, reported the Times, ‘cooks everywhere had adopted it.’

He returned to Camden, Maine, where he taught his mother the trick. She sent several plates to Rockland, Maine, where people gobbled them up. After that, the donut never looked back.

A plaque in the town of Rockport, Maine, marks Captain Gregory’s birthplace, now the parsonage of the Nativity Lutheran Church. The National Baking Association nominated him for the Baking Hall of Fame, but it doesn’t appear he made the cut.

Sailors Snug Harbor

More Donut History

How reliable is the old sea captain’s tale? The Food History Timeline posts donut recipes before 1858, and they all advise cutting the donut into diamonds, squares or twists. Then in 1877 a donut recipe calls for cutting them into rings.

The Food History Timeline also notes that after the Civil War, ‘ inexpensive tin doughnut cutters with holes were manufactured commercially and sold widely.’

Capt. Hanson Gregory died in 1921. You can visit his grave at the National Sailors’ Home Cemetery.

Lewis Wickes Hine,  by the way, took many photos of very young workers, which then influenced the passage of child labor laws. His caption read, “Exchange Luncheon. Delia Kane, 14 years old. 99 C Street, South Boston. A young waitress.”

This story about the donut was updated in 2022. 

Image of Nativity Lutheran Church courtesy Google Maps. 

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