The history of eating popcorn at the movies

Movie theatre popcorn is a fixture of every Australian cinema, has been used in many marketing ploys and has been copied numerous times to achieve that same buttery salty taste we love. However, the theatre hasn’t always been filled with the tempting smell of salt and butter. Although the history of popcorn in cinemas is vast, it came about to save the underdeveloped movie industry from near collapse during the Great Depression.

Popcorn, which is a name mainly associated with puffed kernels of corn, began its craze in New England in the 19th Century. Based on import records, it was suggested that the fad commenced in South America or possibly Africa. It quickly spread after the Spanish became established in the Americas. Although popcorn seemed to be popular in Mexico in the 17th Century no earlier records are in existence. The resemblance to the social and cultural phenomenon it is today did not occur until the middle of the 19th Century. By 1848 American dictionaries were describing  popcorn and by the time the American Civil War ended, it was American pop-culture. Local fairs and circuses throughout the country promoted this culture by having ‘popcorn furnaces’ to provide popcorn to the public. About the only entertainment place where popcorn was absent was the theatre.

Popcorn was becoming increasingly popular due to its mobility. In 1885, the first steam powered popcorn machine was produced. This made it perfect for selling at open sporting events as well as circuses and fairs. It could be mass produced without any kitchen facilities, unlike the potato chip. It’s appealing aroma made it more alluring than other snack foods. Yet at this time still, movie theatres wouldn’t allow the popular snack into the cinema.

Movie theatres were trying to appeal to the high class society and with beautiful carpets and rugs, didn’t want buttery popcorn ground into them, nor did they want to hear the crunch of people snacking and interrupting other moviegoers.

When sound was introduced in 1927, literacy was no longer an issue, therefore the theatre industry welcomed an increase in clientele. By 1930 the huge patronage meant larger possibilities for profit, yet theatres were still hesitant to introduce snacks.

An excellent opportunity was presented in the Great Depression. Audiences flocked to the theatre for a cheap outing. Popcorn, at 5 to 10 cents a bag was an affordable snack. The kernels themselves were cheap to buy. Street vendors didn’t miss the opportunity to open in front of the theatre if the cinema itself failed to offer the snack.

Besides wanting to portray the high class theatre image, cinemas were not equipped to house popcorn machines due to poor ventilation. As more and more patrons came to watch movies with popcorn in hand, theatre owners realised the financial appeal of selling in house. Leased areas were offered inside the theatre allowing vendors to sell for a daily fee.

Eventually theatres cut the middle man and possibly saved themselves during the Depression. By the mid 1930’s, those selling popcorn survived.

World War II cemented the relationship between movies and popcorn. Other snacks such as candy and soda suffered due to shortages in sugar supply. By 1945, America consumed over half the popped corn in theatres. Advertisements began to appear to ‘check the lobby’.

Aside from all the marketing ploys and due to the invention of television, popcorn sales steadily decreased in the 1960’s. Due to it’s difficulty in making at home, and needing butter, salt, oil and a popper, it wasn’t widely consumed at home. The EZ Pop was marketed to change this by just moving the product over a heat source. Then came the Jiffy Pop to make popcorn an easy to make snack food. Microwave ovens in the 1970’s became popular in homes creating another boom for the popcorn industry. Some companies, such as a German electronics company called Nordmende used popcorn as an advertising tool to promote their microwaves.

Nowadays, the popcorn industry promotes home cooked popcorn through advertisements about popular movies or the ‘movie theatre’ style of packaging.

The popcorn and theatre industry has changed from more than just the appealing smell throughout the premises, it has changed the popcorn industry as well. Prior to the Great Depression, yellow corn wasn’t widely grown, instead white corn was.  Movie vendors preferred the yellow variety as it popped better and gave the visual appeal of it having a butter coating. People began to refuse the white variety instead requesting ‘movie popcorn’.

Today popcorn is just as financially important in the theatre as it was in its early days. Hamid Hashemi, the CEO of iPic Theaters in America believes moviegoers spend an average of four hours in the theatre. Although iPic Theaters provide popcorn to their patrons, they are now focusing on more gourmet snacks such as sliders and flatbreads.

With the evolution of luxury theatre, Hashemi feels popcorn will remain a staple of the theatre goer. “Popcorn is the cheapest thing you can make and to a lot of people it has that ritualistic experience”, he says, suggesting it will never lose it’s appeal.