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A Brief History of Popcorn

Pile of popcorn closeup macro shot

You’ve munched on it at the movies, heard it pop in your microwave, and eaten it over the course of a long day at the fair—but you probably only know one small kernel of how popcorn came to be America’s go-to movie theater snack.

Not All Corn Is Pop-able

You may think you can just throw any old kernel over the stove and end up with a bowl of the good stuff, but it actually takes a special type of corn to create the popcorn we know today. In fact, there are 6 major types of corn: dent, sweet, flint, flour, pod, and popcorn.

Popcorn is most similar to small-kernel flint corn, with a hard texture and not much starch. That hard outer shell helps create the “pop” sound synonymous with the movie theater snack (but more on that later).

Let’s Go Way, Way Back

The oldest ears of popcorn go back a long way. 4,000-year-old kernel were discovered in1948 in the “Bat Cave” of west-central New Mexico, where they’d been sitting for much longer than a movie night.

Ancient corn cobs unearthed in northern Peru
Natural History Museum

But, it seems popcorn may go back even further. Researchers have found that people on the coast of what is now northern Peru may have been consuming popcorn as many as 6,700 years ago. According to Dolores Piperno, a curator at the Museum of National History, people from the Paredones and Huaca Prieta regions likely cooked this popcorn variety by wrapping it and then roasting it directly over flames or in an earthen oven.

Even the Gods Love Popcorn

When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they recorded some of the very first accounts of popcorn when they saw the fluffy treat being used by the Aztecs in various ceremonies. It was used for headdresses, jewelry, and other decorations used to honor their gods. One Spaniard’s account mentions a ceremony to honor Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility: “They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water.”

History shows that early Native Americans had their own ideas about the religious aspects of popcorn, believing that a spirit lived inside each kernel. As the kernels were heated and popped, the spirits flew out, enraged that someone would make their home so unbearably hot.

Popcorn…For Breakfast?

Before popcorn became a classic snack, it was actually a classic breakfast. In the late nineteenth and early 20th century, it was eaten just as cereal would be today – ground up and in a bowl with milk or cream.

Try It in a Ball

If you’re looking for a vintage recipe that your Victorian ancestors would appreciate, look no further than the classic popcorn ball. When popcorn became a kid-friendly, inexpensive addition to most holidays in the late 19th century, popcorn balls weren’t far behind. These globes of popcorn were held together with a sugary glue, a recipe for which you could find in just about every cookbook at the turn of the century. There even used to be a booming industry of popcorn ball molds and makers – some of which you can still find on eBay or in garage sales.

Let’s Go to the Movies

All the way through the Great Depression, popcorn was considered an affordable luxury – inexpensive for both the seller and the buyer. It was eaten by the bag at fairs and carnivals, especially after the introduction of the steam-powered popcorn popper in 1885.

vintage popcorn machine

But before movies had words, the hoity-toity, literate theater crowd wanted nothing to do with a crunchy snack you eat by the handful. Once talkies (the movies we know today) became popular, you didn’t need to know how to read to visit the theater – anybody could enjoy a night out. Popcorn vendors began appearing outside movie theaters, and their popularity inspired theater owners to get in on the action and sell it themselves.

Popcorn eventually became so synonymous with a night of escape and luxury at the movies, theater owners found that they could earn even more of a profit by lowering ticket prices and increasing popcorn prices. Surprisingly, that model has succeeded ever since, with many movie theaters still making the majority of their profit from concessions.

So What Makes it Pop?

Ah, the biggest question of all – how does that tiny, impenetrable nugget poof up into a soft snack? It all has to do with the teensiest bit of water trapped inside the hard shell of the kernel. When the kernel meets heat, the water inside turns to steam, causing it to expand. When it becomes too big for its shell, the kernel pops, turning it inside out and releasing the soft starch trapped inside. The starch inside can expand to 40-50 times as large as its original kernel, making popcorn a huge bang for your buck.

Margaret Kaminski Margaret Kaminski
Margaret Kaminski is a writer and editor with experience crafting copy for ad agencies, magazines, TV, and events. She specializes in writing for teens and young adults Read Full Bio »