The Origins of Popcorn

Popcorn is perhaps oldest snack food known to man – with evidence of popcorn being found in the “bat cave” in Western New Mexico dating back to 3600 BC.

The origins of popcorn as a species are not entirely clear, but it seems to go hand and hand with the domestication of maize by early Central and South American inhabitants.

In fact the English word “corn” is somewhat misleading. Corn originally meant whatever cereal plant was most used by a culture. To the English, corn was wheat, in Scotland and Ireland, corn was oats. When the European settlers came to the Americas – they found the inhabitants growing Indian Corn – or maize their dominant cereal plant.

Although European settlers in the new world encountered popcorn in central and South America, there is actually no evidence to suggest that popcorn was present at the first American Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621.

Instead Popcorn as we know it today would find its way to North American east coast as Valparaiso corn – brought up sailors and whalers from the Chilean port of Valparaiso recorded as early as 1820. Within a few years it came to be known by what we call it today “popcorn” – an Americanism that shortened the words popped corn. With the invention of wire poppers, popcorn spread quickly throughout the United States.

But it was industrialization that would cement popcorn in the American culinary heritage.

At the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago 1893, inventor Charles Cretors introduced the world’s first mobile popcorn machine – a simple steam engine attached to a peanut cart that cooked popcorn in a mixture of butter and lard.

At the same expo F.W. Rueckheim introduced a molasses flavored “Candied Popcorn with Peanuts” – the first Caramel Corn. It was a bit too sticky for most people, so Rueckheim’s brother altered the recipe and packaged it a Cracker Jack in 1896.

Cracker JackThe movie palaces of the 1920s were fighting a PR battle with bawldry Nickelodeons. Movie theaters wanted to create an image of class and sophistication so they copied the style of traditional theaters – with sweeping architecture of grand lobbies and furnishing it with elegant crystal chandeliers and gorgeous carpets.

This opened up the movies to brand new audiences – people who were illiterate and often poor and young children – audiences that wouldn’t really be attracted to the palatial setting of movie houses.

And then came the Great Depression. Many movie palaces went under and those that survived were clinging to dear life. Everyone in the movies were suffering… except for the street vendors who were proving there was a buttery goldmine in popcorn. Popcorn was a cheap luxury that people could still afford and it became the first snack smuggled under coats into the movie theater. In this dark time, you could actually make a living as a popcorn street vendor. An Oklahoma banker, who had lost his shirt in the stock market crash, resorted to selling popcorn in front of movie theater. Within a couple years, he made enough money to buy a house, a farm and a store.

Another example of the money in popcorn involves Kemmons Wilson, a young kid who dropped out of high school to support his family. He struck a deal with a Memphis movie theater to sell popcorn outside the theater to patrons. He bought a $50 machine on credit and began selling bags for 5 cents each. In not too much time he was making $40 to $50 dollars a week a lot of money in those times considering the movie theater was struggling to pull in $25. Jealous, the theater owner kicked Wilson out and moved into the popcorn business himself. This story does have a happy ending as Kemmons Wilson vowed to own his own theater so no one would ever take his popcorn machine away again and it was something he did years after he founded Holiday Inn.

The independent non-studio owned theaters were first on board the popcorn gravy train – R.J. McKenna – a manager that ran a chain of theaters in the west began selling popcorn inside the movie theater lobby where the buttery aroma boosted sales. By 1938 he was collecting over $200,000 in proceeds – for that money, who cares if the carpets got messed up. Another chain on the East coast experimented with popcorn only in there smaller theaters – keeping the nicest and fanciest theaters concessions free. Those that had popcorn were making a profit whereas the fancy theaters were dipping into the red.

Popcorn was literally saving the movie theater business – so much so that a Depression-era entrepreneur once gave this bit of advice:

Find a good place to sell popcorn, and build a movie theater around it

Originally published on




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