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Popcorn is one of the favorite snacks of people across the world and in the US. According to Statista’s 2020 figures, 232.51 million Americans ate popcorns. Each year, more than seventeen billion popcorn is consumed in the US. This article takes a look at the evolution of the popcorn machine through the years.
Ancient times: 300 BC
Corn is believed to have been domesticated around 10,000 years back in the region now known as Mexico. Smithsonian Archaeologists discovered evidence to suggest that ancient natives in Peru popped corn for both food and adornment over 6000 years ago, in 4700 BC. In Mexico, popcorn remnants have been found to date back to 3600 BC.
The earliest method of popping corn in Mexico involved heating fine sand using fire and then adding the kernels on the sand to pop them. Other cultures around the same time created a popping popcorn game. The natives would use fire to heat stones to make them as hot as possible and then put popcorn seeds on them. The villagers would gather around to catch the popping grains that flew out into the air.
Mexican cultures in the fourth century are believed to have offered popcorn kernels to the spirits inside funeral urns to ensure the safe passage of the soul towards the next life. Years later, native American tribes believed that spirits resided within the kernels. It was thought that the popping of kernels was a result of the spirits becoming angry due to the extreme heat.
Sixteenth to Seventeenth century
Popcorn is believed to have featured in the Thanksgiving feast in 1621 in Plymouth Colony in the United States. There is also a legend regarding Squanto (Native American belonging to the Patuxet tribe) teaching the Pilgrims all about growing corn and popping the kernels that made for a delicious snack.
Explorers from Europe, in the 16th century, brought home poppable corn from their voyages. Iroquois Indians are believed to have shown French explorers how to pop corn using pottery vessels.
Popcorns became a common snack in households by the turn of the 17th century as people tried to discover an easier way to pop the corn husks. Blacksmiths made popcorn machines by using flat irons to fashion metal cones and threaded them into its center, a metal spit that rotated over the fire. This helped prevent the burning of corn kernels.
The 18th century: The first popcorn machine
The first popcorn machine made an appearance in the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the inventor of which was Charles Cretors. Cretors founded C. Cretors & Company that manufactures the finest popcorn machines to this date.
The term “popped corn” features in the Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1848 by John Russell Bartlett. During the times of the Civil War, everyone knew about popcorn.
Cretors introduced the first popcorn wagon that was horse-drawn in the 1990s, which was an instant success, followed by the popcorn machine that operated on an electric motor.
Popcorn machines witnessed widespread growth in the 1900s. Fred Hoke, along with James Holcomb (Holcomb & Hoke Co), were successful in grabbing a huge share of the market as far as sales of popcorn machines were concerned in 1914. Holcomb & Hoke sold about $20 million worth of their popcorn machines apart from peanut roasters during the next two decades. They made popcorn machines using polished nickel plate, while the cabinets featured steel. The use of rubber-tired, sturdy casters made it easy for merchants to transport large popcorn machines with ease.
Popcorn and movies
Despite the competition, Cretors retained his position as the leader in the popcorn business. While electricity emerged as the preferred source of power, the 1900s was also the decade that introduced motion pictures.
The Great Depression hit in the 1930s. Prior to this era, movies became the main method of entertainment. The first permanent movie theater was established in 1905. They became very popular. It was during the times of the Great Depression that movie-goers bought popcorn from street vendors and took it into the cinemas with them as popcorn was a cheap treat. Although initially movie theaters attempted to ban popcorn, they changed their minds after seeing how profitable popcorn could be. Before long, movie theaters sold popcorn themselves or engaged vendors who could sell popcorn outside the theaters.
Cretors introduced different popcorn machine models that were specifically designed for the movie theater and use in the concession stand. By the 1930s, movies were inextricably tied to popcorn, with people feeling that the only time to eat popcorn was while watching a movie at the movie house.
The 1950s and 1960s: Microwaved popcorn
This was the time that Television made an appearance, which resulted in the movie business taking a bad hit. Consequently, the popcorn industry suffered as well. The solution lied in changing the image of popcorn to reach new markets and television viewers.
Cretors hired Raymond Lowey, a reputed industrial designer, to revamp the Hollywood popcorn machine. The company developed machines for large volume users.
Other inventors tried to overcome the problem of the slump in popcorn sales. Popcorn manufacturers looked at making it easy for people to pop corn at home and invented ingenious devices for this. A manufacturer designed an aluminum pan that had ‘pre-packed’ popcorn kernels. The consumer had only to place the pan on the stovetop to heat it and the popcorn would pop.
Over time, special reusable pans to make popcorn were developed and some had stirrers in the bottom to prevent burning of kernels.
Popcorn and microwave
The invention of microwave changed the popcorn industry again in the late 1970s. Although microwaves’ origins can be traced to World War II, they emerged as a household device in the 1960s and 1970s. Microwavable popcorn made an appearance in 1981 that skyrocketed home consumption of the popular popped snack.
In 1970s, a number of patents were filed by microwave popcorn makers with one of the first being filed by James Borek for a popcorn bag that could be popped in the microwave.
Since its domestication thousands of years ago, popcorn has become a favorite ‘healthy’ snack in the 21st century. Many flavors and versions of ‘healthier’ popcorns have emerged such as low salt, low oil, ‘diet,’ or olive oil-based popcorns.