A (Brief) History of Popcorn

The History of Popcorn and The First Americans 

The history of popcorn is very interesting. Popcorn has been around in the United States (and throughout the world, for that matter) for literally thousands of years. Wild corn and early cultivated corn was popped to make small kernels of popcorn. The oldest ear of popcorn was found in a New Mexico cave and was around 4,000 years old. Popcorn has certainly been around for a long time.

Have you ever wondered who first discovered that wild corn could be popped and how they discovered it? Was it by accident? Or was it an experiment? Perhaps someone took a corn cob into a warm dwelling, got it too near the fire, and the kernels popped. Or maybe a wild fire in a wild corn field popped the kernels and the inhabitants of the area discovered the popcorn. Also, how did these early people know the difference between field, sweet corn, and the corn that would pop? However it was discovered, popcorn has been grown, cultivated, popped, and eaten for centuries.

small cob and popcorn kernelsEarly small corn cob

Native Americans have a rich history (that has been documented) of eating popcorn. A kernel around 1,000 years old was found in a cave in Utah that was thought to have been inhabited by Pueblo Indians.

In the 17th Century, early French explorers found the Iroquois Indians in the Great Lakes region popped popcorn in a pottery vessel with heated sand. The Iroquois made popcorn soup.

Other Native American tribes popped their popcorn right on the cob. They would insert a spear through the cob and roast it over an open fire. The kernels would pop and stick right on the cob.

corn popped on cobPopcorn popped right on the cob
Native American man planting cornEarly Native American man planting corn

An American Indian folklore notes that the Indians believed that quiet, contented spirits lived in each kernel. The kernels were brought into the house, and, as the house became hotter and hotter, the spirits would become angry and would shake the kernels. When the heat became too intense the spirits would burst out of their kernel homes and into the air in a puff of steam.

Colonists in North America adopted the Native American snack food. They ate popcorn with milk and sugar like a breakfast cereal. They also cooked popcorn in a small amount of molasses and ate it as a snack that was similar to kettle corn.

There is an unproven story that an Indian brought a deerskin bag of popped popcorn to the first Thanksgiving festival, and that’s how the Pilgrims were introduced to popcorn.


The History of Popcorn in the 19th and 20th Centuries in the United States

The first commercial popcorn popper was invented by Charles Cretors in Chicago in 1885. The machine had a gasoline burner and was mobile, so it could roam the streets and follow the crowds.

Early horse drawn commercial popcorn popperEarly horse drawn commercial popcorn popper

From the 1890’s up to the Great Depression, popcorn was very popular. Street vendors pushed steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs and parks, following crows around. Popcorn sold for 5 or 10 cents a bag during the Great Depression and was one of the few luxuries people could afford. So, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business kept going. In Oklahoma, a banker went broke when his bank failed. He lost several farms in the process. So he bought a popcorn machine and started a popcorn business in a small store right next to a movie theater. Just three years later he made enough money to buy back three of the farms he had lost.

early popcorn standEarly commercial popcorn stand

Popcorn became popular in movie theaters during the depression—perhaps because of the banker turned popcorn vender’s location by a movie theater.

movies and popcorn during the depressionPopcorn at the movies during the depression

Theater owners began buying popcorn poppers for use in their theaters, and sold popcorn to their theater patrons. As movie theaters became more popular—the talking picture came into being in the late 1920’s—popcorn became even more popular in movie theaters. Those few movie owners who refused to sell popcorn because it was too messy, soon went out of business. Oh the power of popcorn!


The History of Popcorn During World War II And After

The fascinating history of popcorn continues in the 20th century. During WWII, sugar was sent to US troops overseas. That left a shortage of sugar for making candy. So, people turned to popcorn as their snack of choice. In fact, it is estimated that Americans ate three times more popcorn as before the war.

popcorn grown commerciallyPopcorn grown commercially

In the 1950’s television became popular, and fewer people attended movie theaters, which meant fewer people buying popcorn. But it didn't take long for Americans to realize they could eat popcorn at home while watching television. And popcorn consumption increased.

Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation developed microwaves for use in WWII, and later, for home use. By 1980’s, microwave popcorn became available for home use. Home popcorn consumption then increased by tens of thousands of pound in the following years.


The History of Popcorn in Modern Times in the United States

Every year Americans purchase some 14 billion quarts of popcorn. The average American eats around 43 quarts of popcorn each year. Are you an average American?

Today we think of popcorn as a snack (though some of us do consider it a meal). But during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s popcorn was a popular breakfast food. John and Ella Kellogg realized popcorn was a whole-grain food and ate it for breakfast, ground, with milk or cream. They also encouraged others to eat popcorn for breakfast.

Have you ever eaten popcorn for breakfast? How did you eat it? With milk?  


How Was Popcorn Discovered?

We know popcorn has been around for a long time. But how did early Native Americans figure out how to pop popcorn? There are lots of theories. What do you think? Who discovered and how did they do it that when heated, corn kernels would pop?

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Other Visitors Theories

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Accidental Cooking 
Here we are, cooking our food like we do every day. Deer over the open fire. We found some ears of wild corn. Try to eat them. Wouldn't it be great …

Early Corn Cobs and Fire Not rated yet
I think the early Native-Americans realized they could heat corn cobs on the fire. Some of the kernels on some of the cobs popped. I would imagine the …

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For more information about the history of popcorn, check out this link on Wikipedia.