For a lot of people, including myself, popcorn is closely associated with cinemas or even watching movies at home. Even though popcorn did get a huge boost thanks to cinemas, popcorn has been around as a snack for much longer, possibly for thousands of years even!
The start: evolution of corn
You can’t have popcorn without corn. Nor does just any corn, guarantee a good popcorn. Only specific varieties of corn can be made into popcorn. For one thing, the corn needs a sufficiently sturdy shell that only breaks at a high enough pressure for the popcorn to fluff up (read more about why popcorn pops).
The evolution of this popcorn corn probably started thousands of years ago. Corn is native to the American continent and has been a staple crop on the continent for thousands of years. It was considered a holy food for the Aztecs and over the centuries, people developed a wide range of dishes with corn, such as corn tortillas. Over time, hundreds of different corn varieties came to be. Some have gone extinct since then, others have thrived over time. Different regions would have different corn varieties due to the corn adjusting itself to its local surroundings. A wide variety of sizes and color of corn developed. Nowadays, most of us only use and see a handful (if even more than one) of those varieties.
The origin of popcorn
It is likely that people have had access to a ‘popcorn variety’ for thousands of years. Archeologists have found evidence for the presence of popped corn thousands of years ago (Grobman, 2012). Slightly more recently, several hundred years ago, early written evidence for popcorn appears. European settlers observe Native Americans popping corn. Popcorn likely wasn’t ‘invented’ by one person. It was probably discovered by accident, possibly even by several people, in several different locations.
Popcorn in the 19th century
By the late 19th century popcorn popping knowledge and expertise have become widespread and well documented, especially in the United States. Popcorn regularly appears in written records, showing up in magazines and advertisements. Recipes, to make your own popcorn start to appear in publications as well. Of course, at this time, the microwave hasn’t yet been invented, so popcorn would be made in a pan over a fire.
The popularity of popcorn must have spurred inventors onwards. Towards the end of the 19th century, various new methods to make popcorn were developed in the US. The number of patent applications for popcorn machines shot up in that time.
There was William B. Donathen, who describes his invention as “(…) a certain new and useful machine for popping corn, whereby the corn is conveyed automatically to the popping cylinders after the same has been heated in a reservoir attached to the machine”. The drawings in his patent show a large rotating drum, for popping the corn.
A few years later, N. Rossi invents yet another popcorn machine. He describes his as “object is to provide a machine or means by which the raw corn may be roasted or popped expeditiously and completely”.
At the turn of the century, the first patent for an electrically powered popcorn machine was filed. The company, Cretors, is still in business today!
Americans (at the time, popcorn was mostly an American thing) didn’t just innovate with the popcorn making machinery. People quickly realized you can do all sorts of things with popcorn, to make it even more exciting (and saleable?).
Walter Z. Long patented a machine that could make popcorn fritters. It worked as follows: “my invention (…) provide(s) a concrete machine embracing a heater by which to raise the temperature of the pop-corn with its mixture of sweetened and adhesive material to a high temperature, a fritter-crate, a press for compressing the fritters in the crate, and an ejector to dislodge the fritters from the crate.”
William T. Goodwinn’s invention “consists of improvements in machines for making pop-corn balls (…).” His machine used a sugary syrup to attach different popcorn puffs together into one larger ball. These popcorn balls didn’t have to be round and were popular (Christmas) presents at the time. It is around this time that products like Cracker Jack, which is still around, made their way into the market.
At this point in time, the first popcorn vendors start appearing in the streets. Charles Cretors (the same who invented the electrically powered machine) 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 were a common sight in US cities.
Not long after, the first electric popcorn machine was invented. Electrical machines were still new at the time, so it was quite a big deal. The flexibility of the machines made popcorn highly popular to sell at all sorts of fairs and concessions, popularity grew rapidly.
The Great Depression
The popularity of popcorn in the US had been going up for a while when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s. Unemployment soared, stocks crashed. In other words, the economy wasn’t doing well. The spending power of people dropped. But, that didn’t impact popcorn as much. Popcorn was a very cheap treat, even at the time. A bag of popcorn would cost just a few cents and was one of a few ‘luxuries’ a lot of people could afford at the time.
Popcorn & The movies
Before the Great Depression, at the start of the 20th century, a new way to be entertained became mainstream: going to the movies. Starting with the first permanent movie theater in 1905, they quickly became very popular. Popcorn though, wasn’t yet a common cinema snack though. On the contrary, movie theaters aimed to create an exclusive atmosphere and popcorn didn’t fit into that picture.
However, during the Great Depression movie theaters were struggling to remain open and earn an income. Those who did come, bought popcorn on the streets and took it with them into the cinemas, craving a (cheap) treat. Movie theaters tried to ban popcorn, but converted over once they saw possible popcorn profits. Before long, they either sold popcorn themselves or contracted outside vendors to sell popcorn outside of their doors.
Popcorn and the Second World War
The second world war has had a huge impact on people’s diets and the foods they ate. During the war, sugar and other candies were in short supply in the USA and often sent over to the soldiers. Corn was still there though and while unpopped, could be stored well for long periods of time. As a result, popcorn was a very popular treat during this time.
Popcorn & TV
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. Making popcorn at home on the stovetop wasn’t common (and not easy either) and there weren’t microwaves yet. As such, popcorn consumption went down.
Popcorn manufacturers started looking for other ways to sell their products. They wanted to make popcorn making at home easier and came up with several pretty ingenious devices to help people do that. For instance, one manfuacturer developed an aluminum pan which was ‘pre-packed’ with popcorn kernels. All you had to do was heat the pan on the stovetop, while shaking, causing the popcorn to pops. and would expand along with the popping kernels. The commercial below, from the 1950s, is for one of those pans.
In the following years, not a lot changed. The home-making tools slowly evolved. Special pans for popping popcorn were developed, this time ones that could be reused. And stirrers at the bottom of pans were developed to prevent the popcorn from sticking to the bottom and burning.
Popcorn & The microwave
The gradual change over time was suddenly disrupted with the introduction of the microwave! Even though the microwave had its origin during the Second World War (wars are often times of invention), it would take a few decades for it to really become a household staple. Once it did, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, popcorn makers got onto the trend as well.
Popcorn happened to be very suitable for making in the microwave! Patent applications soared in the 1970s.
This is reflected in the number of patents filed on microwave popcorn makers in the 1970’s. One of the first patents, by James Borek, describes a bag in which popcorn can be popped: “The package includes an expandable container adapted to contain popcorn, oil and salt which when exposed to microwave radiation, the oil and popcorn will become heated and the popcorn will pop”.
The microwave made popcorn easily accessible, both at home or at the cinema, where popcorn still is very popular.
Popcorn enters the 21st century
Since the invention of microwave popcorn no major popcorn innovations have taken place. Instead, it was mostly the perception that changed. In the 21st century popcorn became a ‘healthy’ snack, an alternative to chips for instance. The extreme opposite did happen as well. Popcorn with most salt, sugars and fats, to give it a wide range of fancy flavors. Caramel popcorn is delicious, but you can’t say it’s ‘healthy’ :-).
Popcorn outside of the US
Even though most of the popcorn history took place in the United States, other countries did adopt popcorn as well. In various European countries, such as the UK, popcorn also grew in popularity during the Second World War. Nowadays, popcorn producers are aiming to enter the Asian market, where popcorn isn’t yet as common as it is in the US.
Nevertheless, even outside of the US, popcorn can often be found in cinemas. It somehow found its space and hasn’t budged to other snacks.
Tori Avey, Popcorn: a “pop” history, PBS, Oct-29, 2013, link
James R. Borek, Microwave popcorn package, Patent: US4219573A, link
Stephanie Butler, A History of Popcorn, History.com, Aug, 22, 2018, link
Cretors, History, link (popcorn machine manufacturer since the 1900’s)
W.B. Donathen, Corn-popping machine, Patent: US518664A, Application granted: 24-April, 1894, link
Frito Lay, Cracker Jack Original Caramel Coated Popcorn & Peanuts, link
Natasha Geiling, Why do we eat popcorn at the movies, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct-3, 2013, link
William T. Goodwin, Machine for making popcorn balls, Patent: US377303A, link
Alexander Grobman, Duccio Bonavia, Tom D. Dillehay, Dolores R. Piperno, José Iriarte, Irene Holst, Preceramic maize from Paredones and Huaca Prieta, Peru, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2012, 109 (5) 1755-1759; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1120270109, link
History Myths Debunked, Revisited Myth # 70: The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to pop corn at the first Thanksgiving, Nov-27, 2016, link
Walter Z. Long, Popcorn fritter machine, Patent: US567836A, Sep-15, 1896, link
Mexico Lore, Aztecs, Question for March 2006, link
N. Rossi, Popcorn-popper, Patent: US588186A, Aug-17, 1897, link
Whirley Pop Shop, Popcorn Poppers, link