The world has changed a lot the past few decades and so has our food and the way we eat it. Just think about the wide variety of fruits available nowadays (I’m pretty sure pineapples have never grown in the Netherlands) or all the different spice mixes (Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Moroccon, etc. etc.).
I like history to explore all this, but, I don’t like lost lists of facts. Instead I like stories, about how people lived and why that was the case. The case of ‘popcorn history’ fits in great here. It not only shows how popcorn came to be, we can also travel through a lot of other historical events: the rise of cinema, the great depression, the world wars and the rise of tv.
The start – evolution of corn
Currently, most of us know corn as either popcorn or a yellow, slightly sweet, juicy product. Often sold canned or on the cob. However, corn used to be a far more varied product. Thousands of years ago corn was one of the main crops of the American continent. It used to grow in what is now Argentina, Mexico, Chile, various states of the United States and a lot more countries around there.
The plant evolved in a lot of different varieties, all looking different. There were high and low plants, yellow, red and orange corn kernels. There still exist quite some varieties today, nevertheless, most production has limited itself to a more narrow selection of varieties.
People in the Americas used to consume corn in all sorts of ways. Corn was considered a holy food for the Aztecs. Only after Columbus discovered the Americas did corn enter Europe and become an important food there as well.
The origin of popcorn
The variety of corn that is suited for making popcorn must be hundreds of years old. However, I can’t find whether this type of corn was already popped those thousands of years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, above a campfire for instance. There are several theories that roam the internet: a group of Native Americans (the Iroquois) might have ‘discovered’ it, proof might have been found that corn was popped thousands of years ago, it might have been introduced to European colonists in 1630, but not all stories have a lot of proof.
Popcorn in the 19th century – 1880’s
My history of popcorn starts a lot later. Long after corn has actually reached Europe. It’s in the 19th century that the first written accounts of popcorn start popping up. Apparently, by that time, it’s a pretty well known snack and it appears in magazines and advertisments. At about halfway the century, recipes for making popcorn started showing up as well. Generally using a pan over a fire.
Towards the end of the 19th century, people start developing more efficient ways of making popcorn. Wired boxes were developed in which the popcorn could sit, pop and be swirled in, for even heating.
Getting closer to the turn of the century I can find a lot of patents for popcorn machines. Just have a look at these two patents for new machines: William B. Donathen and Nicholas Rossi. When machines are patented, there must be a reason for the patentees to do so. So apparently, popcorn was getting big.
Popcorn balls – 1890’s
By the end of the 19th century people had also discovered that you could make popcorn a lot more exciting. Popcorn fritters were being made, as well as popcorn balls. In both cases a sugary syrup is used to attach popcorns together and form a larger snack in all sorts of shapes. In the US it was a common present, for instance with Christmas. Closely linked to the creation of popcorn balls is the invention of Cracker Jack, which started with a mix of popcorn and a sweet syrup.
At this point in time, the first popcorn vendors start appearing in the streets. Charles Cretors invented a steam powered machine which he showed at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. At the turn of the century horse drawn wagons with popcorn machines in them could be seen on the streets. Not long after, the first electric popcorn machine was invented, which was pretty special, since there weren’t a lot of machines working on electricity at the time. The flexibility of the machines made popcorn highly popular to sell at all sorts of fairs and concessions, popularity grew rapidly.
The Great Depression – 1930’s
The popularity of popcorn kept on increasing at the time, showing up everywhere. And then, the great depression hit in the 1930’s. During this time unemployment was soaring high, stocks had crashed and the economy wasn’t going well. A lot of people had only very little to spend and it so happened that popcorn was a very cheap treat, even at the time. A bag of popcorn would cost as little as 5 to 10 cents.
So the great depression surely didn’t decrease popularity of popcorn, if anything, it might have increased it.
Popcorn & movies – 1930’s
At the start of the 20th century another new phenomenon appeared: the movies. In 1905 the first permanent movie theater was opened. Movies quickly became very popular, evolving from silent black and white movies into those with sound and later also in colour.
Initially, popcorn wasn’t associated with movie theaters. Movie theaters tried to be more exclusive and didn’t see popcorn fit in with that. However, during the depression it was challenging to stay open and earn money since people had little to spend. Those that did come, bought popcorn on the streets and took it with them into the cinemas since it was a nice smelling and especially cheap treat. Movie theaters tried to ban popcorn, but in the end saw a profit in popcorn. They either started selling popcorn themselves or cooperated with vendors in the street who would be allowed to sell popcorn in front of the movie theater while paying a fee to the theater.
Popcorn history on Youtube
Quick tip, there are still a lot of old popcorn making machines from the 20’s or later in this world. Just have a look at youtube and search for ‘popcorn machine’ + the year and you’ll be bound to find some!
Popcorn and the second world war – 1940’s
See the great walk we’re taking through history, while talking about popcorn? Starting with the colonists in the Americas, up to the invention of electricity, the movies, the Great depression and now we’ve landed in the 2nd world war. The second world war actually had a huge influence on people’s diets and the foods they ate, even after the war was over.
During the war sugar and other candies were in short supply in the USA and often send over to the soldiers. However, corn was still there, so popcorn was a very popular treat during the second world war. Another advantage being that it keeps well (when not yet popped).
Popcorn & TV – 1950’s
After the second world war tv became the next big thing in popcorn history. Both the number of televisions as well as the number of regular shows increased rapidly. Initially this was a problem for popcorn. If people could watch tv at home, they wouldn’t go to the cinema and buy popcorn. Since at that time popcorn wouldn’t be made at home (there wasn’t a microwave yet and making stovetop popcorn at home was not yet very common). Thus there was a great decrease in popcorn consumption.
Popcorn manufacturers started looking for other ways and came up with great solutions. One of which was an aluminium pan which contained popcorn kernels. The pan had to be heated on the stovetop and would expand along with the popping kernels. Just have a look at this great commercial from the 1950’s, promoting one of these pans.
The two main brands at the time were Jiffy Pop and EZ-pop (the one from the commercial). A quick search on amazon told me that you can still buy the Jiffy pop pans today!
In the following decades not a lot changed. The home-making tools did evolve. Special pans for popping popcorn were developed, which could be re-used. These pans would have a stirrer at the bottom to prevent the popcorn from sticking to the bottom and burning (here’s an example of a current model).
Popcorn history + the microwave – 1970’s till now
The next (and last) huge change in popcorn world took place with the advent of the microwave. Wars are often times new inventions are made, the microwave was one of them. Not long after the second world war the first commercial microwaves became available, however, it would take several decades, at the end of the 60’s, for the microwave to enter households.
This is reflected in the number of patents filed on microwave popcorn makers in the 1970’s. One of the first patents describing a bag in which popcorn can be popped in the microwave is a great example.
The microwave made popcorn even more of a staple food. It became very easy to make popcorn at home, without the risk of burning it (easy to do when you make it on a stovetop, I’ve got experience…).
Popcorn outside of the US
Even though most of the popcorn history took place in the USA, popcorn also developed in other countries.
Just like in the USA, popcorn grew during the war in the United Kingdom. One of the leading brands being Butterkist.
That’s it, you should now know all about the history of popcorn and have also learned some general history along the way. Have a look at my post about making stovetop popcorn, for making some and learning about the properties of popcorn corn (not every popcorn can be popped!). If, while making the popcorn you wonder why it pops, no worry, continue reading here.
Within this article I’ve already linked to several external sources wherever I use them. However, there are several other sources worth mentioning: genetic development and breeding of popcorn, the start of corn, the origin of corn, history of Cretors, popcorn and the movies, Smithsonian on popcorn and movies and on the exposition showing the popcorn machine.
Cretors, yes, from the guy Charles Cretors who presented a popcorn making machine at a convention in 1893, is still a company producing popcorn making machines. They have a great historical overview of the changing designs and technologies.