Who Invented Popcorn? What to Know About America’s Favorite Movie Snack.

published Apr 25, 2023
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popcorn in pot
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn is a staple snack that will forever be paired with the concept of moviegoing. But, how exactly did we come to regard the popped corn kernel snack as required eating during a visit to the theater? Who invented popcorn, and when? It turns out that the history of popcorn goes way, way further back than the concession stand. 

Who Invented Popcorn?

The story of popcorn begins approximately 10,000 years ago in Mesoamerica (modern-day Mexico), where corn was first cultivated domestically. Popcorn refers specifically to the variety of corn that is heated and then popped. The popped version of the cereal grain, also known as maize, was integral to the indigenous Aztec people as a food, according to NPR

Archaeologists have also discovered remnants of popcorn throughout early Mesoamerica, South America, and North America, per Popcorn.org. The indigenous Iroquis people were documented popping corn kernels in heated pottery jars near the Great Lakes region in the 1600s, according to History.com

The Evolution of Popcorn

Fast-forward to the mid-1800s, the invention of the mould-board plow revolutionized industrial crop cultivation and led to large-scale corn planting around the United States, especially in the Midwest. Simultaneously, homemade popcorn was gaining popularity as both a snack and holiday decoration.

The late 19th century brought with it two vital popcorn technological innovations. In 1885,   store owner Charles Cretors invented the electric popping machine. It was Cretors’ machine which ushered in the now well-known combination of popcorn, butter, and salt. As Cretors and other commercial popcorn entrepreneurs gained steam, new methods for preparing popcorn — such as coating kernels with a thin layer of sugar syrup to prevent sogginess — led to one of America’s most enduring popcorn varieties: Cracker Jack. The snack was invented in 1896 by German American immigrants Frederick and Louis Rueckheim.

When Did Popcorn Become a Popular Movie-Theater Snack?

Popcorn’s ubiquity might have ended at festivals, fairs, and sporting events were it not for the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although movies and movie-going became increasingly popular throughout the 1920s and ‘30s (as many as 85 million people attended movies weekly at the height of the Great Depression), most movie houses banned the snack because they wanted to theater to be a more refined and sophisticated place, as reported in Smithsonian Magazine.

But, as the Great Depression spread, movie theater operators found that selling bags of popcorn for 5 or 10 cents each could help theaters thrive financially. The snack was an accessible luxury that Americans were willing to indulge in despite financial hardship. In 1938, a movie operator named Glen W. Dickinson Sr. installed popcorn machines in the lobbies of his theaters, and soon, other vendors followed suit. The bet paid off, and theaters around the country adapted to relying on concession sales as their primary source of profit.

Overall, it’s easy to say that popcorn has a very storied history and its iconic flavor is one that’s familiar to people of all different generations.

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