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Popcorn and the Movies: How Did That Come About?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Believe it or not, archaeologists now believe that the first use of wild cultivated corn was popping. How has this favorite comfort food evolved down through the ages and become a mainstay in modern theaters? Read on for some answers.

Popcorn and the ancient world

It is speculated that the very first use of popcorn was probably an accident that dated back to 80,000 BCE. Cave men and women placed maize kernels too close to the fire and there it was.

There seems to be some misconception concerning biblical accounts of corn stored in the Egyptian pyramids. That corn was more than likely barley. It is an understandable error, as the meaning of the word for “corn” has changed down through the centuries. It used to indicate the most used grain of a specific location. Confounding the issue is its original meaning in England, which was “wheat” and in Scotland and Ireland, it referred to “oats”. Maize was always the Indian word for American corn, a name which is still used today.

Discovered in 1948, the Bat Cave of central New Mexico yielded the oldest ears of corn ever found, dating back some 4,000 years. The size of the ears ranged from smaller than a modern penny to about 2 inches long.

When Columbus set foot on American soil in 1492, popcorn was there, and recorded accounts mention Native Americans snacking on the “fluffy white stuff” and wearing necklaces made of popcorn.

It is known that popcorn was integrated into Aztec Indian ceremonies dating back to the 16th century. In the words of Bernadino de Sahagun: “And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon (the girls') heads.”

When the conquistadores under the leadership of Cortes invaded the Aztec empire in Mexico in 1519, they saw popcorn for the first time. Popcorn was a dietary staple, as well as a common decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments to adorn statuary.

Popcorn in America

There are several written accounts about popcorn's use that date back to the 17th century. In 1620, popcorn did appear at the first Thanksgiving as offerings from the Native Americans to the pilgrims. At that time, popcorn was commonly consumed by holding an oiled ear of corn on a stick over the fire. As the kernels popped they would be quickly chewed. Indians in both North and South America enjoyed a popcorn beer and a popcorn soup.

In 1650, the Spaniard, Cobo, wrote of the Indians of Peru: “They toast a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.” Down through years, popcorn became more versatile and by 1700, colonial women made the first breakfast cereal by pouring milk and sugar over popcorn kernels.

Popcorn and the Movies

There were few if any recorded innovations concerning popcorn until 1885 when Charles Cretors of Chicago made the very first popcorn machine. The huge, ponderous popcorn machine with its gasoline burner became a familiar element of the street scene. Before this machine came along, poppers were made to sit in front of stores to attract attention. Vendors soon sought to be close to the crowds surrounding movie theaters and thus a new connection was born. Poppers as these machines were called, were made so that they could be pushed on foot, pulled by horse or mounted on trucks.

In popcorn's early days, vendors would set up outside the theaters, which at first was not appreciated by theater managers who believed this distracted viewers and that it made a mess inside the theaters. They quickly amended their thinking when they noticed audience members ducking outside to buy popcorn and then rushing back inside to see the movie.

During the Great Depression, a nickel bag of popcorn was one of the few treats people could afford. Unlike many other confections, sales of popcorn increased during the Great Depression. The main reasons were that it was filling, cheap and tasty - in a way like the movies of that era. A night at the movies was about the cheapest entertainment a family could buy, and popcorn went right along with that. Some theater owners actually lowered ticket prices when they installed their popcorn machines and saw profits go through the roof.

Charles Cretors' invention marked the introduction of a patented steam-driven, mobile popcorn machine that popped corn in oil. Before that time, vendors popped corn by hand, holding a wire basket over an open flame. Results weren't always so good, as most times an unevenly cooked, hot, dry snack was created. Cretors' machine popped corn without much smoke containing a mixture of one-third clarified butter and two-thirds lard and salt.

This first mobile popcorn machine was introduced to the world at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was an instant hit, and without question the era of the popcorn vendor had arrived. Popcorn first became available at movie theaters back in 1912.

In 1925, a Montana inventor named Charles Manley, perfected the first electric popcorn machine. He marketed the machine specifically to movie theater owners, and one of the most successful combinations in culinary and popular cultural history was born.

Popcorn was very popular from the 1890s until the Great Depression and even during those terrible times, popcorn remained “one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford.” As a result, the popcorn business thrived while others failed miserably, even though at a much lower financial level. Nevertheless, hope abounded with rags to riches stories about how popcorn saved the day as surely as some of the heroes depicted on those early celluloid films.

Popcorn and the movie experience became inextricably linked. Theater managers in the 1950s happily noticed that the amount of money made from the sale of popcorn exceeded the profits from the movies themselves. As the medium of television emerged, the association between watching a story on a screen continued and popcorn remained just as popular as always. This evolved into ways of making popcorn at home, as microwave popcorn became very popular in the 1980s.

Microwave popcorn made its debut in the 1940s but today is the most popular form of popcorn sales, reaping huge figures every year.
Americans today consume about 17 billion quarts of popcorn every year.

In the modern theater industry, roughly 67% of revenue comes from ticket sales, but theaters must split the money with studios, and this still accounts for less than half of all theater profits. Popcorn, other refreshments and arcade games are the big profit centers as theaters can keep all of the profits.

It looks like the alliance formed between popcorn and the movie theaters is here to stay.

Long live popcorn!


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Copyright © Marjorie Dorfman 2012