Popcorn’s Past and Present

Sarah Meyer, Columnist

In current American culture, everything about popcorn—the sound, the buttery smell, the crunchy texture—is evocative of cinema. Contrary to popular belief, however, it wasn’t always this way.

Popcorn likely originated in the New World, though historians disagree as to where and how. Although some believe popcorn originated from Native Americans and was consumed at the first Thanksgiving, most historians consider that a myth. Native Americans ate parched corn instead, and the first reference to eating or making popcorn in the area occurred over 200 years later. 

Alternative theories vary—Dolores Piperno, a paleobotanist, believes the first forms of corn in Mesoamerica were in fact popcorn brought back to Europe by the Spanish invaders. Conversely, Andrew Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, believes North American whalers brought popcorn back to New England from Chile. Stephanie Butler, a writer for the channel History, claims popcorn was first popped by the Iroquois in pottery jars filled with heated sand, which was then brought to New England by settlers.

Regardless of its precise origins, by the 1800s, popcorn was commonplace amongst American families. By 1848, popcorn was available nearly everywhere—except movie theatres. Popcorn was especially popular at events like circuses and fairs because of its rich, buttery aroma and loud popping sound that tempted consumers to purchase it. 

Mass consumption started in the 1890s when Charles Cretors, a Chicago entrepreneur, built the first popcorn popping machine. Cretors bought a peanut roaster for his shop, but, unhappy with its quality, he started modifying it. He soon created the first steam-powered popcorn machine that allowed popcorn to be popped more evenly with the desired seasonings.

The mobility of the popcorn machine made it perfect for street vendors, as it could be easily and cheaply mass-produced without a kitchen. However, the popcorn machines seemed less than ideal for movie theatres. 

Although popcorn may be synonymous with movie theatres now, movie theaters at the time were more formal, aiming to appeal to the upper class. Popcorn was strictly banned, since the beautiful rugs and carpets would be ruined by the litter, and the viewing experience ruined by crunching sounds. Theaters also didn’t have the proper ventilation needed for hosting popcorn machines indoors.

After films added sound in 1927 and the Great Depression boosted the popularity of both movie theatres and popcorn, movie theatres started allowing popcorn. They began by selling lobby privileges to vendors to sell popcorn in the lobby, or more often, in the space directly outside of the theatre. 

Movie theatres soon realized they could maximize profits by cutting out the middleman. This relationship between the movies and popcorn was solidified during World War II when other popular items such as soda and candy were rationed due to sugar shortages.

With the introduction of the television in the 1960s, moviegoing became less common, and popcorn sales dipped. Moreover, popcorn was simply too inconvenient to make at home for most people.