Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?
The movie theater's most popular concession wasn't always associated with the movies - in fact, it used to be explicitly banned
By Natasha Geiling
October 3, 2013
Movie theater popcorn is a concession stand staple whose scent has spawned marketing ploys and copycat recipes, but movie theaters haven’t always been saturated with the tempting smell of salt and butter. The history of popcorn is vast, and it intersects with movies in the relatively recent past–a symbiosis of taste and place created to save the fledgling movie theater industry from near collapse during the Great Depression . . .
After popcorn made its way to the eastern part of North America, it spread rapidly. Eaters found the act of popping corn wildly entertaining, and by 1848, popcorn, the snack food, was prevalent enough to be included in the Dictionary of Americanisms. Popcorn had literally exploded onto the scene and was available everywhere–especially at entertainment sites like circuses and fairs. In fact, there was really only one entertainment site where the snack was absent: the theaters.
One reason for popcorn’s increasing popularity was its mobility: in 1885, the first steam-powered popcorn maker hit the streets, invented by Charles Cretor. The mobile nature of the machine made it the perfect production machine for serving patrons attending outdoor sporting events, or circuses and fairs. Not only was popcorn mobile, but it could be mass-produced without a kitchen, an advantage that another crunchy snack–the potato chip–lacked (the earliest potato chips were made in small batches in kitchens, not ideal for mass snack appeal). Another reason for its dominance over other snacks was its appealing aroma when popped, something that street vendors used to their advantage when selling popcorn. Still, movie theaters wouldn’t allow the popular street snack into their auditoriums.
“Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn,” says Andrew Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, “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.
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.
The Great Depression presented an excellent opportunity for both movies and popcorn. Looking for a cheap diversion, audiences flocked to the movies. And at 5 to 10 cents a bag, popcorn was a luxury that most people were able to afford. Popcorn kernels themselves were a cheap investment for purveyors, and a $10 bag could last for years. If those inside the theaters couldn’t see the financial lure of popcorn, enterprising street vendors didn’t miss a beat: they bought their own popping machines and sold popcorn outside the theaters to moviegoers before they entered the theater. As Smith explains, early movie theaters literally had signs hung outside their coatrooms, requesting that patrons check their popcorn with their coats. Popcorn, it seems, was the original clandestine movie snack. . . .
Popcorn wasn’t widely eaten in homes, mostly due to how difficult it was to make: consumers needed a popper, oil, butter, salt and other ingredients to replicate their favorite movie theater snack at home. To ease this burden, one commercial product, EZ Pop, marketed itself as an all inclusive popcorn maker–simply move the container over a heat source, and the popcorn pops, completely flavored. After EZ Pop came Jiffy Pop, a famous at-home popcorn product that used the same “all-in-one” philosophy. By making popcorn an easy-to-make snack, commercial popcorn products were able to gain a foothold in the home. In the 1970s, microwave ovens become increasingly common in homes, creating another boom for popcorn: now, families can enjoy popcorn in minutes simply by pressing a button.
As popcorn re-entered the home, traditional associations of popcorn and movies, or popcorn and entertainment, persisted. Nordmende, a German electronics company, even used popcorn to advertise its microwave, purporting it to be a “sponsor of the midweek movie.”. . .
Popcorn is just as economically important to the modern movie theater as it was to movie theaters of old. Patrons often complain about the high prices of movie concessions, but there’s an economic basis for this: popcorn, cheap to make and easy to mark-up, is the primary profit maker for movie theaters. Movie theaters make an estimated 85 percent profit off of concession sales, and those sales constitute 46 percent of movie theater’s overall profits. . . ."