Popcorn is one of America’s favorite snacks. It’s easy to make, it’s delicious, and there are endless ways to customize it. But when was popcorn actually invented? And who came up with the idea? Here’s a look at the history of popcorn.
When Was Popcorn Invented?
“Invention” might not be the right word to use when discussing the origin of popcorn. A more accurate term is “discovery.” Why is this the case? The National Science Foundation indicates that maize, or corn, was domesticated as a crop more than 8,700 calendar years ago.
Therefore, humans did not really invent popcorn, but rather they discovered popping corn as a new way of cooking maize since the crop itself was already in existence.
The First Pop
In an archeological study in 2012, scientists unearthed 6,700-year-old corn cobs that contained popped kernels attached to the cob.
This discovery on the Northern Coast of Peru is the earliest evidence of popped corn. Experts predict that our forefathers must’ve probably stumbled upon popcorn through trial and error. Ancient civilizations were possibly experimenting to see the effect of fire on different types of corn when suddenly some kernels started to pop.
Popcorn in Ancient Ceremonies and Culture
So, what did humans do once they discovered popcorn?
First of all, they ate it as a snack. Secondly, they incorporated it into 16th-century Aztec Indian ceremonies. Popcorn was used to make ceremonial headdresses, ornaments, and necklaces that adorned the statues of the Aztec gods, including Tlaloc, who was recognized as the god of fertility and rain.
In Northern Chile, researchers found 1000-year-old kernels of popcorn in burial grounds along the coastal desert. These kernels were in excellent condition, and some of them were still popping when heated!
Do you remember making stringed popcorn in kindergarten and wearing it on your head like a halo?
In the early 16th century, Aztec cultures had some creative costume fun with popcorn too! The explorer Bernardino de Sahagun wrote about Aztec Indian ceremonies where young women wore popcorn garlands on their heads and performed a ceremonial popcorn dance.
Who Invented Popcorn?
We don’t really know for sure who was the first human to place a corn cob on the fire and see the kernels pop. This is because the earliest evidence of popped corn dates back to nearly 7,000 years ago. Nevertheless, let us explore some other popcorn-related inventions in recent history.
First Mobile Popcorn Cart
Charles Cretors invented the first mobile popcorn cart in 1885. This earned him the title of “Father of Modern Popcorn.”
The mobile popcorn cart made it easy for vendors to prepare and sell popcorn to crowds. Pretty soon, popcorn vendors used the carts to travel to amusement parks, social gatherings, fairs, political rallies, and sporting events all over the US.
First Preserved Popcorn
In 1892, a Utah inventor named James Nvoods applied to patent his machine that preserved popcorn by coating the popped pieces in sugar syrup.
First Commercial Popcorn Brand
In the 1880s, Albert Dickinson Co. of Iowa became the first company to sell popcorn kernels under the package names Little Buster and Big Buster.
First Cracker Jack
Two German brothers, Lewis and Frederick Rueckheim, developed the first cracker jack in 1896. They created the tasty treat by mixing popcorn with salty peanuts and coating the combination with molasses.
First Microwave Popcorn
In 1947, Percy Spencer, a self-taught American engineer, filed for a patent for the invention of microwave popcorn.
Was Popcorn Invented By Accident?
The discovery of fire about one million years ago forever changed the way man interacts with food. The first popcorn was possibly discovered in the process of trial and error when humans placed corn on the fire for a prolonged period of time.
Unfortunately, this original account of the first popped popcorn is not properly documented since it happened more than six thousand years ago. Nevertheless, let us explore some other accidental popcorn-related inventions in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Defective Peanut Roaster Turned Mobile Popcorn Machine
The first mobile popcorn cart was invented by Charles Cretors in 1885. He owned a confectionary shop in Illinois and had recently bought a peanut roaster for the shop. It turns out that the peanut roaster was defective. Cretors then decided to do some DIY modifications on the machine to try and fix it.
After renovating the peanut roaster, the Cretors discovered that the new and improved peanut roaster could pop popcorn quite well. In December 1885, he acquired a license to be able to sell popcorn outside his shop. Cretors eventually introduced his invention to the world during the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.
The mobile popcorn machine revolutionized the world of popcorn since vendors were now able to travel to different places to sell their popcorn. This made popcorn easily available to the masses at nearly every state fair and amusement park. Eight years after the initial invention, Cretors improved the design of the popcorn machine to enable it to evenly distribute butter and salt to the popcorn while it popped.
From Melted Chocolate To Microwave Popcorn
Percy Spencer was an American self-taught engineer credited with the accidental invention of microwave popcorn and, later, the microwave itself.
The story goes that in 1945, Spencer was working for Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation in Massachusetts. While in the process of trying to figure out how to mass-produce magnetrons for use in the Second World War, Spencer was standing in front of an active magnetron when the chocolate in his pocket started to melt.
Out of curiosity, Spencer placed some popcorn kernels in the magnetron, and they began to pop. With this, Spencer successfully discovered the amazing ability of the magnetrons to cook food.
Shortly thereafter, Raytheon patented the invention, which is now known as the microwave.
Did Popcorn Exist In The 1800s?
Yes, popcorn did exist in the 1800s! In fact, the 19th century was an exciting time for popcorn. There were significant discoveries in the production, preparation, and distribution of popcorn.
Popcorn Recipes In The 19th Century
In the early 1800s, Americans explored different recipes for making popcorn. One of the earliest recipes for buttered popcorn was provided by Daniel Browne in 1840. Another impressive popcorn recipe that came out of the 19th century was Cracker Jack.
Popcorn balls were invented in the late 1800s, and they were often given as gifts or hung as ornaments during the festive season. The popularity of popcorn also led to the development of a variety of popcorn ball-making gadgets.
Did you know that popcorn was also a common breakfast item during the 1800s? In the late 19th century, popcorn was ground and mixed with milk or cream. This mixture was eaten for breakfast in the same way that we eat cereal today.
The widespread cultivation of the popping variety of corn was another game-changer that occurred in the 19th century. The introduction of the steel plow in the mid-1800s greatly transformed the agricultural industry in the Midwest.
The large-scale production of corn was made possible by the ability of the steel plow to cut through tough vegetation. This poppable variety of corn brought in so much income for farmers that it started being referred to as prairie gold.
A Convenient Way To Pop
The invention of the mobile popcorn machine was the most significant development for popcorn in the 1800s. This simple innovation skyrocketed popcorn to national fame since vendors were able to sell popcorn to large crowds.
Charles Cretors, who invented the mobile popcorn machine, is known for being the father of modern popcorn since his invention literally brought popcorn to the people.
When Did Movie Theaters Start Selling Popcorn?
Nowadays, nearly all movie theaters sell freshly popped popcorn in a variety of tasty flavors. However, the relationship between movie theaters and popcorn has not always been this good.
Too Fancy For Snacks?
In the past, movie theaters were very sophisticated, and many of them were carpeted with expensive rugs. In an effort to avoid spillage and stains, some movie theaters banned any form of snacks or drinks.
However, something interesting happened during the Great Depression. Since many families were unable to afford expensive snacks, popcorn became the go-to option for both children and adults alike. At the time, popcorn was retailing for about ten cents per bag, and this made it an affordable luxury.
Eventually, movie theaters decided to rent space to vendors in the lobby so that they can cope with the dropping ticket sales. You can certainly guess who were some of the first savvy business people to take up the space – popcorn vendors!
The Economy Got Popping
During the Great Depression, popcorn sellers at movie theaters were making astronomical sales and profits.
In Andrew Smith’s book ‘A Popped Culture: A Social History Of Popcorn In America,’ he explains the story of a farmer from Oklahoma who used the money from popcorn sales to buy back three farms that he had lost.
Very soon, movie theater owners decided to renovate their lobbies and set up their own concession stands to enjoy some of the profits from the popcorn business. Since then, movies and popcorn have continued to enjoy a long-lasting relationship that doesn’t seem to be dying down anytime soon.
What Country Eats The Most Popcorn?
The United States is the leading consumer of popcorn in the world. Research shows that Americans eat approximately 17 billion quarts of popcorn each year. Japan, China, and France follow the US as the second and fourth most popcorn-consuming countries, respectively.
Nebraska produces nearly half of the total amount of popcorn consumed in the US. Some of the other top popcorn-producing states include South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana.
What Was the First Popcorn Flavor?
Caramel popcorn is famed for being one of the first popcorn flavors to burst onto the scene in the late 1800s.
At the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Fredrick Rueckheim introduced the first flavored caramel popcorn coated in molasses, which he referred to as “Candied Popcorn.” The first Cracker Jack was invented in 1986 when Fredrick’s brother Lewis added peanuts to the candied popcorn recipe.
Why Is Popcorn Called Popcorn?
The word “popcorn” was first recorded in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, published in the mid-1800s. The term originated from the sound that popcorn kernels make when they are heated and exploded.
Popcorn kernels have a hard outer shell and a soft starchy interior that contains a small amount of moisture. When a kernel is heated, the moisture is converted to steam, which exerts a huge amount of force. This causes the soft starch portion to rapidly expand and burst out, thereby producing the characteristic ‘pop’ sound.
Was Popcorn the First Cereal?
Have you ever thought of having popcorn for breakfast?
Well, popcorn was a popular breakfast meal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was eaten in pretty much the same way that we eat cereal today. The popcorn was ground and mixed with cream or milk.
This combination was enjoyed for many years, long before the invention of the corn flake. Hence, in many ways, you could consider that popcorn was the first form of corn to be eaten as cereal.
It is quite clear that popcorn has come a long way from when it was first discovered more than six thousand years ago to the current age where it is enjoyed in nearly every movie theater across the world.
Popcorn has truly stood the test of time to remain one of the world’s most popular snacks. With new flavors and varieties constantly being invented, there is no doubt that even in the future, popcorn will still be popping!
Sue’s favorite pastime? Watching a good movie with a giant tub of popcorn by her side. Her friends and family know that if they want to get her something, popcorn is always a safe bet. Sue has an adventurous spirit and loves to travel exploring new places – she’s been to more than 40 countries!