The History of Popcorn: How One Grain Became a Staple Snack

Popcorn in a Whirley Pop.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Though their big screens are dark, the smell of popcorn, hot and freshly popped, still wafts out of some movie theaters. Closed because of COVID-19, theaters large and small are trying to stay afloat on the sale of popcorn and other snacks. “We had our doors closed and no income coming in,” Dave Loomos, co-owner of the 92-year-old Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, Illinois, told a local radio station earlier this month. “We decided to do curbside popcorn pick-up to see how it would go, and we've been doing that for the past couple of weeks and it seems like it's well-received…”

When popcorn was first sold inside movie theaters, almost 100 years ago, it actually helped buoy the business, which was flailing at the time as the country entered the Great Depression. Always an affordable treat, today, popcorn is tinged with nostalgia. For many Americans, the aroma alone triggers happy memories of going to the movies, of waiting in line to see a new release with friends and family.

With movie nights happening at home now, this April, popcorn flew off grocery store shelves, resulting in sales that were more than 30 percent higher than the previous year’s, according to data from Nielsen. But this isn’t the first time Americans fell in love with popcorn—and it won’t be the last.

The First Popped Corn

Long before boxes of Pop Secret lined grocery store shelves, corn began as a wild grass called teosinte in southwestern Mexico, according to research compiled by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. Corn was probably cultivated as a domesticated crop around 9,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2012 that archaeologists unearthed the first evidence of popcorn in Peru: 6,700-year-old corn cobs studded with puffed kernels.

Thanks to its versatility, nutrition, and possibly the fact that dried kernels were popped and "easily consumable with the simplest of technologies: fire," according to Michael Blake in Maize for the Gods, there’s evidence that the nimble grain was grown and consumed all over Mesoamerica, South America, and North America.

“If tribes didn't grow the corn, they perhaps traded that corn,” says Lois Frank, a New Mexico-based chef, author, historian, and expert in Native American foodways, who explains that a vast network of trade routes once criss-crossed the continents. Though corn wasn’t the only foodstuff that was traded, it—including the popped variety—was an essential part of the cuisine of many of these early cultures.

Early popcorn probably resembled parched corn, which is made by cooking dried kernels, often in a frying pan. (Because parched corn typically uses kernels with lower water content, curbing its ability to pop, it’s considered a predecessor of CornNuts.) “Parched corn is much crunchier,” Frank says. “We know that in the early Southwest, there was popcorn—it just wasn’t a Jiffy Pop that you’d put in your microwave.”

The fluffy popcorn we know and love today is, in part, the result of thousands of years of careful cultivation of a few different strains of corn by those early tribes. Modern processing techniques ensure its dramatic cooking process: Corn for popping is grown, cured on the stalk, picked, and then dried until each kernel contains around 14 percent moisture, according to the USDA. When exposed to heat, that moisture expands, causing the kernel to burst into the final product. (For more on the science of popped corn, see this guide to making the best popcorn at home.)

From Farms to Fairgrounds

Early American settlers adopted corn, including popcorn, and learned to grow and cultivate it, ensuring it stayed in the diet of hundreds of thousands of people for the next several centuries. In the mid-1800s, the steel plow—which could cut through tough vegetation—transformed Midwestern agriculture. In Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana, corn—especially the poppable variety—became such an important cash crop that it was dubbed “prairie gold.” By 1917, the region had so deeply embraced this nickname that it inspired poetry: Members of the Iowa Press and Authors' Club collaborated to produce Prairie Gold, a volume of poems and stories that celebrated the region’s corn production.

Popcorn has long been popped in pots over a flame, but the turn of the 19th century brought a flurry of popcorn innovation. In 1875, a Kentucky resident named Frederick J. Myers patented a corn-popping device that added a stay-cool handle. But popcorn’s real rise wouldn’t come until sellers could easily carry popping machines around with them. That happened in Chicago in 1885, when Charles Cretors invented a lightweight electric machine that popped corn in oil, allowing vendors to easily move along with crowds in search of a better profit. Eight years later, Cretors improved the model by adding a contraption that would butter and salt the popcorn, too. The first commercial popcorn brands also got their start around the same time, when Iowa’s Albert Dickinson Co., which sold kernels under the names Big Buster and Little Buster, came onto the scene in the 1880s.

Archival photograph of a popcorn stand in Johnston City, Illinois from 1939

[Photograph: Library of Congress]

Subsequent patents provide a glimpse of the popcorn problems inventors sought to solve, both decorative and gustatory. In 1892, James T. Nvoods of Utah applied to patent a machine that coated freshly popped corn in a sugar syrup that would help preserve the snack. The coating separated the kernels so they could be boxed or packaged without getting soggy or dusty. Around then, two brothers began to experiment with new ways to flavor popcorn. Originally from Germany, Frederick and Lewis Rueckheim sold small batches of popcorn they made with a handheld popper. In 1896, they developed a combination that stuck: Cracker Jack, a combination of crunchy popcorn and salty peanuts coated in molasses.

The 20th century brought more popcorn patents, each aiming to improve the product or refine the tools of the trade. As the century progressed, individual vendors and commercial entities alike would build on this foundation, using technology to solidify popcorn’s status as a ubiquitous, familiar snack food that could be marketed to the masses. But back then, popcorn vendors relied on crowds at street fairs, festivals, and sporting events for all of their sales. No one expected Hollywood to change popcorn’s course forever.

Popcorn Goes to the Movies

Between 1920 and 1930, an initial wave of 20,000 movie theaters opened across America, with attendance reaching 25 million weekly movie-goers in 1925. Enterprising snack vendors took note: Those who normally camped out at sporting events or festivals began to set up shop outside of movie theaters, drawing the ire of the venues’ owners. “Many movie theaters had carpeted their lobbies with valuable rugs to emulate the grand theater lobbies,” Andrew Smith writes in Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America. In an effort to avoid sticky, greasy spills, most theaters banned snacks and soda outright.

But this ban would soon be overturned. In the late 1920s, sound—dialogue, music, and sound effects—came to the movies, and the industry experienced an enormous boom. Weekly movie-going soared to 90 million people in 1930, ushering in the Golden Age of cinema, thanks in part to the fact that illiterate Americans could finally enjoy movies, too. Unfortunately, the shift to sound caused growing pains for the industry. Small community or rural theaters shuttered, unable to afford the new technology. Movie theaters that did survive “redefined the evening from one of champagne to one of popcorn and soda,” according to sociologist Richard Butsch.

archival photograph of a popcorn stand. Iowa Falls, Iowa, 1939

[Photograph: Library of Congress]

Pressure mounted as the Great Depression set in. As millions of Americans lost any sense of financial security, popcorn became their go-to “affordable luxury” at 10 cents per bag, writes Smith. Desperate to stay afloat, movie theaters finally caved and began renting portions of their lobbies to popcorn and snack vendors.

Depression-era stories of wealth amassed through popcorn sales began to flourish; they seem at least partially rooted in fact. Smith writes of an Oklahoma farmer who bought back three farms with popcorn money, and of a Dallas chain that earned $190,000 from popcorn in some locations while its snack-free locations went broke. One Kansas City vendor, Julia Braden, earned an annual income worth nearly $230,000 today after she successfully negotiated with the local theater to let her sell popcorn to movie goers.

Theaters eventually began to offer their own refreshments, marrying concessions and movie tickets once and for all. They were even willing to take losses on tickets to boost attendance, encouraging guests to spend their money on the more profitable concessions. That legacy continues today: Theaters sell popcorn at a markup between 800 and 1,500 percent, since distributors claim a substantial cut of ticket sales. As popcorn became a fixture in movie theater lobbies, its aroma became inextricably tied to the movies.

Out of the Movie Theater and Into the Microwave

With popcorn sales ensured by Hollywood, the big business of popcorn moved on to targeting a home audience—particularly after Americans began watching television during the 1940s.

Though the first microwave was invented in 1946, the appliance didn’t become commonplace in American kitchens until the 1980s—a match made in heaven for popcorn, which popped just as well in microwavable packaging as it did on the stove. The microwave’s arrival coincided with a fitness boom, making popcorn the perfect relatively healthy snack for diet-conscious consumers. The first microwave popcorn was released in 1981; it contained perishable butter and required refrigeration. Another version, by Pillsbury, came frozen.

It was an undeniable hit: Within two years, microwave popcorn was available nationally and brought in $53 million in sales, according to a New York Times report. By 1984, a shelf-stable version hit stores*, and sales climbed even higher. Americans bought $250 million worth of popcorn in 1986, setting off an all-out battle between snack food companies that attempted to corner the market.

*Cultured dairy products—including butter—get their distinct flavor from two chemicals, diacetyl and acetoin. These compounds are synthesized and recombined for that “natural butter flavoring” that’s stabilized, infused into oils, and dispensed at movie theaters or used to flavor microwave popcorn.

Unfortunately for Nabisco and General Mills, one agricultural scientist had already become an unlikely popcorn king among men: Orville Redenbacher, a skinny, bespectacled man from Indiana with an immaculate suit, bow tie, and swoop of silver hair. Redenbacher was a Purdue-educated farmer who became famous for tinkering with hybrid varieties of corn. In 1965, Redenbacher and his research partner, Charlie Bowman, successfully created a kernel that would expand twice as much as the yellow corn Americans were familiar with. They called their hybrid “snowflake,” for its shape and ability to expand to up to 40 times its original size.

In 1991, Redenbacher spent his 85th birthday taping an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman. A slightly awkward guest, he touched his thick, plastic-framed glasses bashfully as the studio audience clapped. “In 1970, I hired a big firm in Chicago to come up with a name. They came up with the name ‘Orville Redenbacher’—which is the same identical name my mother thought of, 85 years ago,” Redenbacher joked, pulling out an old favorite quip. “And they charged $13,000 for the idea.”

Letterman’s assessment that Redenbacher was responsible for transforming the popcorn industry still holds true. The “snowflake” hybrid Redenbacher and Bowman developed accounted for 45 percent of the total microwave popcorn market at the time of Redenbacher’s death in 1995.

Pre-Popped Popcorn Is On the Rise

Though pre-popped popcorn failed to impress movie-goers in the 1930s, today, pre-popped snacks are on the rise. During the 2000s, people began to eye microwaved popcorn with suspicion. A 2008 study found that diacetyl, a chemical used in artificial butter flavoring, was linked to Alzheimer’s and lung damage in industrial settings, and microwavable bags were lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was linked to a condition dubbed “popcorn lung” due to respiratory diseases contracted by microwave popcorn factory workers. (More recently, the same condition has been linked to e-cigarettes.)

In 2013, AdAge reported that consumers were also growing tired of waiting for popcorn to pop. Microwave popcorn’s growth was miniscule, compared to nearly 12 percent growth—or nearly $672 million in sales—among pre-popped popcorns like Smart Food and Skinny Pop. The trend suggested that consumers wanted popcorn that was ready to eat, not a snack they had to tend to. Plus, as any college student knows, microwave popcorn has a tendency to burn, setting off fire alarms when unattended. Just this month, a brand was recalled when some of its bags began to ignite in the microwave.

Regardless of the reasons, ready-to-eat popcorn seems here to stay. In 2018, one marketing agency reported that Americans were ready to be more adventurous with their popcorn. Instead of traditional butter or salt, consumers craved popcorn that was cheesy, chocolatey, or studded with mix-ins like nutritional yeast.

Still, if you’re willing to wait a few minutes, it’s cheap and easy to make popcorn the old school way—from kernels that last months in the pantry. It’s comforting to know that with a glug of oil and a few minutes on a hot stove, freshly made popcorn—plus a new release on Netflix or Hulu—is always within reach, whether you’re stuck at home for weeks on end or not.