The humble popcorn kernel was first grown on the American continent, but despite the glamour of Hollywood, it took a while for the popcorn and movies trend to catch on.
The science of popcorn is as fascinating as its history. While there are numerous varieties of corn, popcorn kernels have particularly hard hulls, which house the tissue and starchy material of the corn. The hull also contains around 20% moisture, which is the key to making the corn go ‘pop’. When heated, this moisture turns into vapour, creating pressure until the hull can’t contain itself anymore. The kernel bursts and its contents expand, cool and turn into a puff of popcorn.
Corn was first purposefully grown in the region now known as Mexico around 10,000 years ago. Amazingly, it’s believed the magic of popping corn itself was discovered thousands of years ago too, as popcorn remnants dating back to 3,600BC have been discovered in Mexico.
Popcorn kernels made their way to the United States in the 19th century. From family kitchen stoves to fairs, the popularity of popcorn literally exploded. A steam-powered popcorn maker was first invented in 1885 by Charles Cretor – and the family company Cretors still makes popcorn machines to this day. Wheeled around in a cart, the popcorn maker revolutionised how and where food could be served, as popcorn could now be freshly made absolutely anywhere. Soon enough, popcorn was the snack of choice at sporting events, fairs and whilst strolling along the street.
Cinemas, on the other hand, resisted the popcorn craze. For a time, popcorn was available practically everywhere else except the cinema. Original cinemas were fairly grand affairs, with thick carpets and generally decadent interiors. Cinema owners didn’t want to deal with the mess that would be created by snacks such as popcorn, nor did they want to create the noisy distraction of people eating during films, particularly since there were only silent movies in those times.
As time went on, films gained audio and thus more background noise, while a more diverse audience started visiting cinemas too. During America’s Great Depression, movies and popcorn remained fairly cheap and were still just about affordable to many. While cinema owners still resisted selling popcorn inside, entrepreneurial popcorn vendors sold their wares outside the cinemas. Film-goers simply snuck their snacks inside. Cinema owners finally realised how much more money they could make if they sold popcorn and other snacks themselves, and they eventually gave in.
During World War II, sugar shortages meant many popular snacks were not available, but the production of popcorn continued to thrive, further cementing its popularity. By the mid 1940s, more than half of the popcorn consumed in the United States was eaten inside cinemas. A similar trend made its way across the pond to Britain too. Nowadays, Americans are the biggest popcorn eaters, followed by Brits.
Discovered thousands of years ago and wending its way into movie rituals by the twists and turns of history, popcorn is a snack that will surely be forever tied to films. We wouldn’t want it any other way.