The History of Popcorn at the Movies

By Wesley Fenlon

Popcorn has helped movie theaters survive since the days of the Great Depression.

Movie theaters and popcorn go together like--well, movie theaters and popcorn. The flickering silver screen and America's favorite concession have been inextricably linked for the better part of the century. The smell of popcorn evokes memories of sticky theater floors and booming surround sound. But how did it come to be that way?

You probably know that popcorn and candy and other food is what keeps movie theaters afloat; they make as much as 85 percent profit on concession sales, and those sales account for nearly 50 percent of theaters' total profits. The history of profitable popping corn dates all the way back to the 1930s, but before that, popcorn and movie theaters didn't actually go hand-in-hand. In fact, according to the book Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America, movie theaters originally turned up their noses at the idea of the snack.

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Popcorn first came into popularity in the mid-1800s, and the classic image of the mobile popcorn cart has been around nearly as long--the first steam-powered popcorn maker was invented in 1885. But theaters weren't having any of it. Smithsonian Mag, who interviewed Popped Culture's author, writes " 'Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn,' Smith says, 'because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters. They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn’t want popcorn being ground into it.' Movie theaters were trying to appeal to a highbrow clientele, and didn’t want to deal with the distracting trash of concessions–or the distracting noise that snacking during a film would create."

Movie theaters wanted to be just like the theatre, which meant no low-brow snacks. But then everything changed. The movies added sound.

"When films added sound in 1927, the movie theater industry opened itself up to a much wider clientele, since literacy was no longer required to attend films (the titles used early silent films restricted their audience). By 1930, attendance to movie theaters had reached 90 million per week. Such a huge patronage created larger possibilities for profits–especially since the sound pictures now muffled snacks–but movie theater owners were still hesitant to bring snacks inside of their theaters."

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At first, popcorn was often sold in stands outside the theaters. But when the Great Depression hit, movie theaters started selling popcorn themselves, and the huge profits on popcorn kept them alive through the rough economy. The theaters that didn't sell popcorn mostly shut down. And ever since, popcorn and the movies have had a symbiotic relationship. Of course, there's a lot more to the history of popcorn--read Smithsonian Mag's full interview with Popped Culture author Andrew Smith for more.