Pop History 201: Popcorn for the People

April 09, 2021

Pop History 201: Popcorn for the People

During our last chapter of Pop History, we learned that popcorn is one of the oldest snack foods known to mankind, dating back thousands of years and forming one of the cornerstones of ancient civilizations. But how did popcorn come to be one of America’s most popular snack foods? Let’s take a look! 

Legend has it that popcorn was part of the very first Thanksgiving feast back in 1621, but unfortunately this story is full of hot air. Early American settlers did grow corn, but archeologists have determined that it was Northern Flint corn, which isn’t suitable for popping. While the pilgrims at Plymouth may not have had their hands on any popcorn, there is evidence to suggest that the first Americans to enjoy this poppable delight were in New England. 

French explorers wrote of the Iroquois people popping corn in jars filled with hot sand. Since the Iroquois nation spread across the Great Lakes region, it’s highly likely that settlers in New York and Vermont became the first European-Americans to enjoy popcorn. Reportedly, popcorn was also eaten with milk and sugar like a breakfast cereal, and even cooked with a small amount of molasses similar to today’s kettle corn. 

By the mid-1800s, popcorn was beloved by families across America, often shared at picnics and socials or available to purchase at carnivals and circuses. However, it wasn’t until the 1860s, when a Chicago entrepreneur by the name of Charles Cretors came along that mass production and consumption of the pop-tastic treat really took off. Cretors, a candy store owner, converted a commercial peanut roaster into the first ever popcorn maker. A few years later he had designed entirely new machines, powered by steam and able to both roast peanuts and pop corn. 

By 1900, Cretors had taken his popcorn machines to the streets – literally. He created the first horse-drawn popcorn wagon, which could often be found outside the newly popularized movie theaters. Thus the marriage between movies and popcorn was born. 

Nowadays, Americans get their popcorn from a microwave or a movie theatre, not from a horse and buggy, but it remains America’s favorite snack. In fact, according to the Popcorn Board, Americans eat 13 billion quarts of popped corn every single year. 

Tune in next time to learn how popcorn survived the Great Depression, then made the switch from the big screen to the small screen.




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