With Americans consuming more than 15 billion quarts of popcorn every year, it’s hard to imagine a time before this beloved snack was easily accessible. But the truth is, while it seems popcorn has always been a favorite food in America, it has a fascinating and innovative history that led it to become one of the most popular entertainment venue snacks of all time.
Innovation and invention
Up until the 19th century, it was typical for popcorn to be popped in pots over an open flame. This meant that popped popcorn wasn’t easily sold to the public, especially because it limited the popper to a single location. But in 1885, a Chicago inventor, Charles Cretors, created a lightweight electric powered machine that popped corn in oil and made it easy for vendors to move among crowds to sell their popcorn. Cretors later improved his invention by adding a feature that also buttered and salted the popcorn.
Later innovators found that popcorn kernels coated in sugar syrup helped to preserve the snack and helped separate the kernels, which allowed them to be packaged without getting dusty or soggy. It was two brothers who experimented with adding flavors to their popcorn snacks: Frederick and Lewis Rueckheim, the developers of the Cracker Jack. Popcorn became ubiquitous with street food, a favorite at festivals, sporting events, and street fairs, meaning vendors relied on those crowds for all of their sales. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that popcorn found a new home.
At the theater
With the advent of motion pictures and growing popularity of movie theaters, popcorn vendors began to realize the great opportunity that awaited them at the movies. Despite the Great Depression, popcorn remained an affordable luxury at 10 cents a bag. While many movie theaters initially shunned popcorn vendors from selling outside their doors, the financial impacts of the Great Depression were unavoidable and slowly, these theaters began to rent portions of their lobbies to popcorn vendors.
When movie theaters finally began to sell their own concessions, they found that snacks and popcorn were so profitable that they were willing to take a loss on ticket sales in order to boost their attendance with concessions. This formula is one we still see today in movie theaters, where the cost of popcorn is marked up as much as 1,500 percent in some locations.
Popcorn in bags
When microwave popcorn gained popularity, it became easier than ever to enjoy freshly popped corn at home. This was helped in part by more and more Americans watching television in their homes, and wanting to enjoy their favorite movie theater snack in their living rooms. Today, pre-popped popcorn is seeing a rise in popularity. Brands such as SmartFood and SkinnyPop are seeing a boon in sales, and many other flavored varieties of pre-popped corn have become fast favorites.
No matter how you choose to enjoy your popcorn — stove popped at home, dripping with butter at the theater, or straight from the bag, there’s no denying that popcorn has been America’s favorite snack for decades, and continues to grow in popularity.