Dollars To Donuts

What does the ‘dollars to donuts’ expression mean, and why did it come to be?



This late 1800s American expression means: I’m so sure I’m right, I’m willing to wager something valuable – dollars, for something undeniably cheap if I’m wrong – donuts.

Clearly this ‘dollars to donuts’ idea emerged before the days of $5 artisanal donuts infused with bougie spice.

In the 19th century, donuts were indeed considered a most ordinary, if delicious, breakfast option. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his 1865 ‘Cape Cod’: ‘At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea. The old man talked a steady stream; and when his wife told him he had better eat his breakfast, he said: “Don’t hurry me; I have lived too long to be hurried.”

In the 1891 ‘American Pastry Cook’, Jessup Whitehead wrote: ‘You could get a Little Pittsburgh doughnut for ten cents at any hour of the day or night, and a glass of dried-apple cider for the same price; but in a commutation arrangement you could get a doughnut and a glass of the cider together for fifteen cents… These doughnuts were placed in a tentative way on the best hotel tables and they took –  or at least the people took and partook.’

But soon, Whitehead bemoaned: competitors started messing with the doughnut recipe: making them larger by cutting them with three versus two pound tomato cans; leaving out the eggs and half of the sugar and selling them for five cents. ‘There was no margin to pay for advertising in that. Little Pittsburgh doughnuts weakened and came down and the advertising ceased.’

Here, we see a twist on dollars to donuts illustrated in a photo from the Smithsonian’s Sally L. Steinberg Collection of Doughnut Ephemera at the National Museum of American History, Archives Center ..




Header Photo: Ave Calvar




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