How Was Popcorn Invented?

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The enticing smell of freshly popped popcorn immediately brings a movie theater to mind.

Whether you’re heading out to watch the latest blockbuster at the theater or firing up some popcorn at home for a Netflix binge, you may have asked yourself how was popcorn invented in the first place. We’ll walk you through the origins of this archetypal American today, starting with the type of corn used for great popcorn.

I. What Type of Corn is Used for Popcorn?

There is only one type of popcorn that pops in just the right way for popcorn: this is the Zea mays variety everta corn.

Although this is not the same type of corn you eat at the dinner table, it possesses the necessary properties to pop when you apply heat and pressure.


II. Early History of Popcorn

Given that popcorn comes from corn, long a staple in the US, popcorn was not technically invented at all, simply created from an existing staple food.

The oldest popcorn found was discovered by Earle Smith and Herbert Dick back in 1948. They noticed some small heads of the everta variety of zea mays corn in a dry cave called the bat cave. At the same time, they also spotted some individually popped corn kernels, carbon dated to over 5600 years old.

Aside from this proven discovery, there is also evidence that popcorn was used in Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala, as well as other locations throughout South and Central America.

Native Americans also were known to consume popcorn in the Great Lakes region – this was discovered by French explorers in the region – and the Aztecs used popcorn for eating and embellishing their clothes.

When did popcorn fully penetrate the United States, then?


III. Popcorn Penetrates The United States

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As the United States came into being with colonist moving all around North America, popcorn became more widely adopted.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the invention of the steel plow radically transformed agriculture in the American Midwest. Throughout this region, corn – particularly the poppable type – became known as prairie gold as it was such a vital cash crop.

The earliest example of popcorn were likely similar to parched corn. This was made by cooking dried kernels in a pan.

How did we get from there to the popcorn we know and love today, then?


IV. Popcorn Evolves: Modernization

As popcorn became increasingly popular, more ways of making it developed.

Typically cooked in a pot over an open flame, innovation occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century with the creation of the first popcorn machine. A corn-popping device with a stay-cool handle was designed and patented by Frederick J Myers in 1875.

It wasn’t until ten years later, though, that the first commercial popcorn machine was brought to market by Charles Cretors. This machine was mobile and significantly improved access to popcorn for the American population.

This model was enhanced over the coming decade with the addition of a device to sprinkly butter and salt over the popcorn.

It was also in the 1880s that the first commercial popcorn manufacturers started out, particularly the Little Buster and Big Buster from Albert Dickinson Co of Iowa.


V. Popcorn and The Movies: A Match Made in Heaven

As the Great Depression ravaged the United States, Americans longed for affordable luxury, and at just 10 cents a bag, popcorn fit the bill.

Businesses also suffered during times of economic hardship, and movie theaters were struggling to stay afloat. In an effort to pivot, theaters began renting areas of their lobbies to snack concessions and popcorn stands.

It wasn’t long before movie theaters started offering their own refreshments, sometimes even making a loss on tickets knowing they would continue to sell popcorn at markups of anywhere from 800% to 1500%.

The advent of television meant fewer people headed to the movies, and the popularity of popcorn started waning.

That all changed at the start of the eighties, though, with the introduction of microwave popcorn.


VI. Popcorn Enters American Homes

The first microwave was created accidentally in 1946.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that microwaves were a common fixture in American kitchens. When this super-convenient appliance hit the US, it coincided with a fitness boom, meaning consumers were on the lookout for healthy snacks. With popcorn popping just as well in the microwave as it does in a stovetop popcorn maker,

In 1981, the first microwave popcorn hit the shelves. This contains perishable butter so needed refrigerating. Pillsbury also released a frozen version.

It took just two years for microwave popcorn to deluge shelves nationwide, accounting for over $50 million in sales.

Shelf-stable versions hit the stores in 1984, with sales spiking to $250 million by 1986. This sparked a battle for dominance in this lucrative new market segment.

During the 2000s, people started becoming suspicious of microwaved popcorn. Firstly, there is a chemical used for artificially flavoring butter called diacetyl. This has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease and lung damage. Also, microwavable bags often contain PFOA, a contaminant that can cause lung disease.

Today, people are more adventurous when it comes to popcorn. The traditional options of salt and butter are still commonplace, but Americans are hankering for chocolate popcorn and cheese popcorn in increasing numbers these days.


VII. Conclusion

The popcorn you know and love today is the result of thousands of years of careful cultivation. The corn grown for popping is cured on the stalk and then dried after picking until each kernel contains 14% moisture. As soon as the kernel is exposed to heat, this moisture expands, cracking the kernel into popcorn.

Before you head off today, take a moment to bookmark Madiba. We’re here to help you choose all the best products for your home kitchen, and we also publish plenty of informative guides on all aspects of cookery, so pop back very soon!

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