The History of Popcorn

Popcorn tops the list of great movie theater treats. This buttery concoction has become associated with movie and TV watching, although it hasn’t always been that way. Popcorn has made a long journey from ceremonial staple to luxury snack.

Popcorn was essential to 16th century Aztec Indian ceremonies, which Bernardino de Sahagun writes, “And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon (the girls’) heads.” The Aztec Indians used popcorn as a decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues of their gods, including Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.

In the mid-1800s, the use of the moldboard plow enabled the widespread planting of maize in the United States. Popcorn became extremely popular from the 1890s until the Great Depression. Street vendors pushed steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks, and expositions following crowds.

Once the Great Depression began in 1929, popcorn became one of the few luxuries at 5 to 10 cents a bag that even down-and-out families could afford. During this period, many businesses failed, but the popcorn business exploded. A broke Oklahoma banker bought a popcorn machine and started selling this salty treat near a movie theater. After several years, his popcorn business profited, and he was able to buy back farms he’d lost.

The popcorn phenomenon grew even more during World War II since sugar was sent overseas for the U.S. military, which meant less sugar to make candy back home. Americans ate three times more popcorn than unusual thanks to the sugar shortage.

In the early 1950s, television became popular, which meant movie theaters got less of a crowd and with it, less popcorn consumption. Once people began eating popcorn at home, the new relationship between TV and popcorn led to a resurge in popularity.

Microwave popcorn was the very first use of microwave heating in the 1940s. And it has accounted for more than $240 million in annual U.S. popcorn sales during just the 1990s. Americans today eat 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year, and the average American eats approximately 54 quarts.