The History of Popcorn and the Movies

By Maddie Donnelly, Gourmet Live guest blogger

Ever wonder why popcorn and the movies go together like Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio? Here's a brief history of the duo.

Popcorn wasn't introduced to the general public as a snack food until around 1840, when it first made appearances at fairs, carnivals, and rallies. In 1885, with the invention of the first portable popcorn machine, its popularity increased dramatically. Popcorn vendors followed the crowds, set up shop, and introduced popcorn neophytes to the joys of butter, salt, and crunch. It was a cheap and tasty hit.

As fate would have it, the popcorn boom coincided with the dawn of nickelodeon (or dime) theatres. Vendors, quick to spot an opportunity, sold their treats outside of the movies. Though patrons loved it, the mess left behind, the smell of the machines, and popcorn's association with burlesque irritated movie theatre owners, especially as the fancier theaters of the 1910s and 20s were built.

But as the Great Depression set in, and profits dropped, desperate owners sought new ways to make money. They noticed how lucrative the popcorn business was and installed machines of their own inside. Soon concession stands were integrated into the designs of theatres. A movie and a bucket of popcorn became one of the main forms of entertainment for struggling Americans well into the 1930s.

When the TV came along, and threatened the movie business once again, concession stands became as central to a movie theatre's success as the movies themselves. And when sugar rations took hold during World War II, making candy no longer available at the movies, popcorn sales skyrocketed. By the time sugar was reintroduced to the public, the notion of popcorn at the movies had become ingrained in the minds of theater patrons everywhere.

Today, concession stand sales account for a whopping 40 percent of movie theatres' net revenue. And while new snacks are constantly being introduced, popcorn endures. So when you pop your bag of popcorn before your favorite movie starts, know that you're not only satisfying a craving, but partaking in a little American tradition.


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Photo Credit: Conde Nast Digital Studio

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