Top of the Pops: America’s Ongoing Infatuation With Popcorn

Retro Staff Comments

October is National Popcorn Popping Month!

Popcorn Machine - Street Vendor StyleDiscovered thousands of years ago, popcorn dates back to before 3600 B.C. in what is now Peru. Some believe popcorn was developed by American Indians, but researchers have found no evidence to support that.

It wasn’t until the 1840s that popped corn garnered the title of “snack food,” when it was first served at fairs and carnivals.

The first portable popcorn machine was introduced in 1885. Street  vendors would follow crowds to various events, setting up shop just outside. When movie theatres became popular family outings, these vendors saw great opportunity. You may find it hard to believe now, but movie theatres and popcorn didn’t always have a stellar relationship. For some time, theatre owners despised   popcorn vendors, probably because patrons would step outside during a movie and return with their snacks, leaving kernels all over the theatre floors.

Then came the Great Depression.  With the tasty treat costing a mere nickel to a dime per   bag, cash-strapped Americans turned to popcorn as a cheap—and filling—snack. As well, struggling American farmers saw popcorn as a good source of   revenue.

During WWII, when sugar rations halted the production of prime candies, the country turned to popcorn even more. When theatre owners finally gave in and brought concession stands in house, they started turning great profits, thanks to popcorn. Today, popcorn counts for more than 40% of the average movie theatre’s business.

It wasn’t only theatre owners who recognized the mass appeal of popcorn, however, and Americans brought popcorn making into the home decades ago, for snacking, for parties, and for family events like gathering ’round the radio for broadcasts of The Shadow, or the television for Wide World of Disney and our favorite variety shows.

Poppin’ that Popcorn

When I grew up, we popped popcorn on the stove, using nothing more sophisticated than a copper-bottomed pot and a bit of oil. I remember the sound the pot made as it rattled across the burner, my mother constantly shaking it. Once the corn was popped, she’d drizzle melted butter and salt over it, and we’d go to town.

The Great American Popcorn Machine

In the ’70s, we had The Great American Popcorn Machine by Sunbeam. It was fun to use, but still couldn’t beat the stove top method. (Source: eBay)

Jiffy Pop was introduced in 1959 and maintained popularity in busy households well into the 1970s. I recall us eating Jiffy Pop once in a while, but I think my mother only bought it because it was on sale and it was easier for us kids to make if she wasn’t home. While many swore by the “pan included” popcorn, it couldn’t touch what mom fixed herself.

Today, there are kettles specifically designed for popping popcorn. Hot air poppers. Individual-sized serving bags that you pop in under three minutes in your microwave, and some other creative means of turning those rock-hard kernels into a delicious snack food.

How do you pop popcorn? What’s your favorite way of filling up a bucket, or two, for a movie night at home? We recently turned a room in our house into our own home theatre, complete with risers, cup holders, and theatre-style lighting. And of course, we got enough replica popcorn buckets to ensure all our guests would be well-supplied during double features.

How about you? When did your love affair with popcorn begin, and how do you keep the fire burning today?

Last updated: Oct 28, 2013
Filed under: Deliciously Retro, Retro Food and Recipes Tagged with: home theater, movies