food snack popcorn movie theater

Popcorn History

Freshly popped and buttered popcorn is practically synonymous with movies. When you think of going to the movies, one of the first things that pops into your head is popcorn. If you’re like me, you may consider going to the movies just to get that authentic movie theatre popcorn. While the marriage of popcorn and the movies is somewhat recent, popcorn is much older than you would think! Popcorn has a long history. People have been enjoying popcorn for well over a thousand years.

Popcorn- more history than you would think
Modern popcorn, popped and buttered
Logicaldisaster~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Popcorn

Popcorn is definitely an American invention. While corn is a staple of many diets now, it was completely unknown outside of the America’s before Columbus accidentally discovered the western continents. Europeans didn’t have corn until well after trade was established with the Native Americans. Corn, and by extension popcorn, had a history with Native Americans that goes back thousands of years.

The oldest ears of popcorn are over 6,000 years old! Archeologists believe that some of the first uses of wild corn was popping. Researchers in Peru found corn cobs stuffed with flowery popped kernels in 2012. Previously researchers thought popped corn was bout 4,000 years old. This was based on small cobs found in Western Mexico.

Popcorn was an important part of the Native American diet. Aztecs used popcorn in important rituals. They also dressed statues of the gods with jewelry adorned with popcorn.

Other people in the Americas relied on popcorn. Researchers throughout Central and South America have found evidence of popcorn consumption. Even within North America, tribes from current day Mexico as far north as the Iroquois near the Great Lakes enjoyed popped corn! French explorers had their first taste of popcorn when they traded with the Iroquois to get through the harsh winters. Colonists to the New World quickly became dependent on corn, and by extension popcorn.

Modern Popcorn

Popcorn was originally not quite as tasty as it is today. It was smaller and had a more “parchment” like feel and taste. As different types of corn developed, new varieties were made to improve popcorn. Households would pop their own corn over a flame- no popcorn machines had been invented yet. That would change in 1885. Charles Cretors created the first commercial popcorn machine. It was on wheels and used a gas burner. He took the cart out onto the streets of Chicago, popping and selling corn to passers. His popcorn was an instant hit.

People quickly started to purchase the carts as well as the popcorn. They started setting up outside movie theatres, at fairs, and anywhere people would gather. Movie theatres originally refused to sell popcorn. Popcorn wasn’t sold inside the theatres at first. People considered popcorn too messy. That mindset didn’t last too long. Movie theatres that sold popcorn saw far more business. During the Great Depression, it was one of the few snacks that was still affordable.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e2/Cinema_popcorn_bucket.jpg

Sugar became heavily rationed during World War II. Candy was off the table for many Americans as prices skyrocketed. Despite this, popcorn was still affordable. It didn’t use any sugar and popcorn consumption tripled during the war.

Microwavable Popcorn

Popcorn was immensely popular during the war, but by 1950 people were staying home to watch their brand new TVs. With the advent of television, movie theatres began to lose customers. As they lost customers, so did popcorn begin to lose popularity.

Thankfully, popcorn wasn’t about to be left to the history books. Percy Spencer discovered how to generate microwaves in the 1940’s and began to work on microwave ovens soon after. By the 1980’s, microwave ovens had taken off in popularity. The popcorn industry quickly adapted. 1981 saw the first microwavable popcorn. Refrigeration was required as it had actual better. Other versions came frozen instead. By 1984 a shelf-stable version was created. Americans bought $250 million worth of popcorn by 1986.

Orville Redenbacher created the popcorn we’re familiar with today. An agricultural scientist by trade, his popcorn expanded twice as much as any on the market.

Today, people are more inventive with their popcorn. Many different seasonings and additives are available so you can mimic whatever flavor you’d like with your popcorn. Personally, I’m a fan of the regular old-school movie theatre butter popcorn.

What’s your favorite popcorn flavor? Have any ideas for our next article? Let us know in the comments!

Want to read more?

Want to read more about popcorn history? Check out the websites below!

https://www.thespruceeats.com/the-history-of-popcorn-1328768

https://www.popcorn.org/All-About-Popcorn/History-of-Popcorn

https://www.seriouseats.com/popcorn-history-movie-theaters– This one is by far the most comprehensive.

Interested in food history?

Then you should definitely check out our article on the first beer can! Canning beer is way harder than you would think, and it wasn’t until the 1930’s that we managed it!

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Jackie Standaert

I'm an office worker by day, a historian by night. At some point, I'll have enough money saved to get my Ph.D. in History, but for now, my B.A. will have to do.

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