Popcorn History

The History of Popcorn

Evidence of the growth and use of corn in the United States dates to the period 500-1200 AD. Cave dwelling images (carved in rock) called petroglyphs and archaeological findings indicate corn was a staple food during the Anasazi period in the Four Canyons Area. The Four Canyons National Park is located in Utah and extends to the border areas of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Various tribes of this era are believed to have developed highly sophisticated methods of food production, irrigation and preservation systems. Cave images show corn stalks, sun and a variety of other images. Notable is the image Kokopelli that reappears on cave walls throughout this area. Kokopelli is depicted as a whimsical, hump back playing the flute. However, Kokopelli was probably like an early Johnny Appleseed. Traveling from village to village, he probably bartered seeds from the sack he carried on his back and discussed seeds, fertilization and irrigation with neighboring tribes. He most likely influenced now accepted principles of genetic breeding and contributed to fertilization and irrigation (see photo right). The corn of this era, however, is a far cry from today's popcorn with a hard outer shell (pericarp) that retains moisture and when popped, produces a fluffy ball much like a cumulus cloud. The Anasazi tribes are reported to have disappeared about 1200 AD. Recent studies indicate they probably abandoned their sites due to drought and need to defend scarce resources from nomadic aboriginals. They are believed to have became absorbed in the larger and safer city-pueblos of the Hopi and Zuni peoples. Whether or not this early corn grown during the Anasazi Era survived and become the maize grown by Native Americans in other parts of the U.S. and thought to have been introduced to the Colonists is speculation.

Fast Forward to 1900s

Popcorn was popular in the U.S. from the 1890's until the Depression of 1929. During the Depression, street vendors followed the crowds pushing steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks and expositions. During the Depression popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries poor families could afford.* While other businesses failed, popcorn businesses thrived. It is reported that an Oklahoma banker who went broke bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple of years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he had lost. During World War II, sugar was sent overseas to support U.S. troops. This meant there was not much sugar left to make candy. As a result, American ate three times as much popcorn as usual.*

1950s to Present

Popcorn's popularity slumped during the 1950's when television became popular and theater attendance dropped. When people began eating popcorn at home, the new relationship between television and popcorn led to a resurgence in popularity.* This trend has continued. Today, U.S. popcorn growers annually produce over 900 million pounds of raw popcorn. According to one source: this is enough to fill a tub the size of a Mammoth Cave. About 20% of domestic production is exported. The top state producer is Nebraska with about 30% of the U.S. total. Once processed and packaged, popcorn is offered to consumers in a variety of formats and flavors. It is sold in outlets as varied as Department Stores and QVC to movie complexes with huge snack facilities duplicating old fashioned Drive Ins. An expanding economy has created a whole new environment for the consumption of popcorn - the home theatre. This factor, growing distribution channels, new recipes and uses for popcorn and a growing awareness of the healthful and nutritious aspects of this product predict a bright and continued future for the popcorn industry.