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A History of Popcorn

From Native Domestication through the Rise of Redenbacher

American History magazine contributor Joseph Gustaitis says it best when he suggests that popcorn may be America’s national food. Corn, from which popcorn is derived, is a species native to the Western Hemisphere and was introduced to European colonists by indigenous peoples. But corn wasn’t widely popped by Anglo-Saxon people in America until the middle of the nineteenth century. In its earliest form, corn kernels needed only heat from a fire to cause the popping action, but technology from the latter half of the nineteenth century made popcorn easier and more efficient to produce anytime and anywhere. At that time, popcorn took on many post-popped flavors and forms and became one of the most widely enjoyed snacks in the world.

Navigating the Corn Maze: Etymology

Corn Kernels “Corn,” short for “Indian corn,” was a way of differentiating the American corn from cereal grains that were known in Europe as “wheat corn,” “barley corn,” and “rye corn.” The dictionary lists the British definition for the word as “any of various cereal plants,” while Indian corn itself is “a tall cereal plant, Zea mays, cultivated in many varieties, having a jointed, solid stem and bearing the grain, seeds, or kernels on large ears.” Maize is in the Maydeae family of a grass tribe and seems to have originated in Central America, but its precise ancestry is uncertain. Mays is derived from an indigenous word, mahiz (or “maize”), meaning “that which sustains life” (Hardeman). To avoid confusion with the older usage of “corn,” “maize” is more commonly used in British English and in other languages.

As for popcorn (or popcorn maize), it got its English name in the nineteenth century for the sound it makes when the kernels burst from being heated. It’s an Americanism shortened from “popped corn.” But not just any corn (Dictionary.com). A certain variety corn is most suited to popped corn, and evidence suggests that it has been around for a long time.

Indigenous people somehow discovered very early that what is now known as the subspecies Zea mays everta burst into a puffy, white, flowery-looking object when exposed to heat. The name derives from the verb “evert,” which means exactly what happens to everta kernels: to turn inside out. Try snacking on an unpopped kernel and your teeth will be challenged by the hard outer covering of the seed called the pericarp, or hull. The covering provides nutrition for the starchy, nutrient-rich endosperm that surrounds the embryo—and it provides such a good covering that when the seed is exposed to heat, moisture in the kernel is gradually converted into steam at a high temperature until enough pressure builds that the whole structure everts and the starchy inside is exposed (Smith 2007). Of course, connoisseurs of the popped corn know well the fragmented remains of the hull, which can get caught in the teeth and even be a choking hazard to children.

Early History of Popcorn in the Americas

It is believed that maize domestication and what we call popcorn go hand-in-hand in early history, based upon maize pollen specimens that are at least just over two millennia old (Smith 1999). The spread of Zea mays everta eventually completely depended upon humans not only to handle the tough, protective husks around tightly packed seeds that make up “ears” of corn, but be able to adequately space the seeds having unpacked them from the ear (Hardeman). A present-day variety of a wild genus may be an ancestor to the modern plant, but other theories exist about how everta as we know it came to be, including that it was derived from a now exinct plant. But like the eventual dispersal and perpetuation of the species across parts of the Americas by indigenous people, its actual lineage remains a mystery—and corn does not grow wild today (Hardeman).

An array of corn varieties (and, indeed, other grains) can pop, but only the everta “pod-pop” variety creates the desired result, the tried-and-true popped corn with hundreds of years of history behind it. Alas, no part of that history is the legendary introduction of popcorn to Pilgrims and other early settlers colonizing the eastern coast of North America. There is no proof that popcorn was present at the first Thanksgiving. Native Americans in those regions had long cultivated other non-popping varieties, which indeed they did help colonists plant (Smith 1999).

Peruvian tombs There has been some early archeological evidence gathered of popcorn as far north in the Western Hemisphere as the Americas, but most of the evidence of early popcorn consumption exists from Central and South America. In fact, the remarkable durability of the kernels is supported by the successful popping of fully intact thousand-year-old corn unearthed from Peruvian tombs (Hardeman). The fact that no evidence exists of such durable kernels from archeological sites east of the Mississippi in North America seems to most soundly challenge the myth that popcorn was consumed, let alone offered, by indigenous people to the colonists.

A few other scattered citations suggest the possibility of popcorn’s spread from the New World into the Old World, including one as early as the sixteenth century in China, but it is an unclear reference and may have simply been a different grain altogether. Moreover, a handful of references to something like popcorn in Colonial America were likely a “flint” corn variety that did produce a pop, but not the popcorn enthusiastically snacked upon today (Smith 1999).

But then came the nineteenth century, when indeed a fabulous new popped corn, which some called “Valparaiso corn,” became popular (Gustaitis).

The Nineteenth-Century Rise of Popcorn Popularity

Cargo Ships Valparaíso is a major seaport of Chile where popcorn had flourished within the culture. Sailors or whalers from America arriving in the port may have encountered it and brought it back to New England as early as 1820 (though other sources are possible). Its first printed reference appeared in an Albany agricultural publication in 1838—and by only one decade later, “popcorn” found a place in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms.

Through the early and mid century, experiments with versions of popping corn abounded as the acreage of planted popcorn increased multifold. Developments in technology led to increased home consumption during the 1830s in part because of the invention of the wire corn popper that properly contained the popping corn—thanks to New Hampshire’s Francis P. Knowlton and the marketing success of hardware vendor Amos Kelley (Smith 1999). By the 1840s, popcorn was officially an American fad (Smith 2007), and by the Civil War popcorn was well known throughout all of existing America. Within the following few years, it was widely produced commercially while simultaneously becoming identified with an array of culinary activities and cultural pastimes—and it was popped by all manner of newly developed, dedicating corn-popping devices (Gustaitis; Smith 1999).

As a food, a popcorn or puffed corn variety enjoyed a brief stint as a breakfast cereal and is certainly a predecessor to “puffed” grain cereal of any kind. But popcorn really made its name as a snack food in the latter part of the nineteenth century when it entered the sweeter realm of confections, especially with the advent of Cracker Jack.

While not strictly popcorn, Cracker Jack is one of the most well known popcorn-based snacks in the United States. Two German immigrants got their start on the street in the 1870s and mastered a blend in time for the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago, which launched their success: peanuts and molasses combined with popcorn. By 1896, Frederick and Louis Rueckheim secured a trademark for Cracker Jack—and through advertising (especially to children) and with help from the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Cracker Jack became the most successful commercial snack in the world by 1913, with operations expanding into Canada and Great Britain (Gustaitis; Smith 2007).

Twentieth-Century Spectator Snacks and the Rise of Convenience Popcorn

A steam-powered popcorn maker first hit the streets in 1885 (and found fame at the same Chicago exposition as Cracker Jack), and hot, fresh popcorn was a renowned snack at a variety of events by the end of the century. Inventor Charles Cretors took the simple idea of keeping the kernels moving for even exposure to bursts of heat and made it mobile. It was a perfect fit for rising “spectator” events, including sports like baseball and, later, movie houses.

Meanwhile, major manufacturers and mail-order companies such as Sears, Roebuck, and Company got involved and combined with huge amounts of production to lead to very low prices for customers. The little kernels even captured the imagination of the generation, creating a cultural and scientific dialogue. Captivated, perhaps, by its distinctive aroma when freshly popped, poetry and literature containing references to popcorn began emerging while scientists both in American and abroad developed theories about why popcorn pops. Popcorn also earned an early reputation for being a healthful snack (Smith 2007).

Popcorn Theater When popcorn became associated with movies during the Great Depression, its place in American culture was cemented. Theater owners opportunistically installed popcorn makers when they observed patrons bringing popcorn in off the street. Meanwhile, Charles T. Manley developed an electric popcorn machine to assist the exploding popcorn industry in theaters. Very early on, in fact, theater owners recognized the importance of popcorn in generating revenue, a fact that remains blatantly obvious today where theaters make the majority of their revenue not from ticket sales but from food and beverage sales—much of which is exorbitantly expensive popcorn.

After the repeal of prohibition, popcorn found another secure place in society as a salty bar snack encouraging patrons to enjoy more beverages. Popcorn earned additional cultural cachet in America during World War II as a patriotic snack as production of popcorn wasn’t limited or rationed, whereas many other foods were (Smith 2007).

Microwave By the middle of the century, the popcorn industry recognized television as the next promotional medium for their product as television viewing cut into movie theater profits. But while television in the 1950s was a boon for the popcorn industry (and brought about the now ubiquitous Jiffy Pop and similar brands), it was really the microwave that forever changed the way popcorn was enjoyed in America and many parts of the world. A mid-century patent for the microwave submitted by Percy Spencer utilized popcorn kernels to demonstrate the new device’s efficacy. Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation had employed Spencer to improve a device to manage microwave energy for radar use. Spencer later discovered a culinary application for the energy having successfully—and evenly—popped great quantities of popcorn. The efficiency of the microwave (improved through several subsequent innovations) launched a whole industry of fast foods, but popcorn was really the first to make the microwave famous.

About the same time, agronomist Orville Redenbacher began experimenting with popcorn hybrids intent on making the finest popped corn he possibly could. He developed a plant that produced bigger popping corn, but at a cost. Marketed as gourmet, Redenbacher’s product tapped into an increasingly affluent society and helped propel a boom of popcorn agricultural production, nearly tripling the industry in the two decades between the 70s and the 90s (Gustaitis). Other companies quickly tapped the microwave popcorn phenomenon, developing a variety of improved butters and other flavorings to complement the consistent popping bags.

Popcorn’s origin may be a mystery, including the very evolution of the everta species itself, but it’s fully integrated into modern American society. Plain popcorn continues to enjoy a reputation as a healthful snack while a proliferation of popcorn-based snacks such as Kettle Corn continue to be developed. The simple science behind popcorn was once not understood, but the future of popcorn is clear: corn is a huge component of the modern food system, and popcorn is one of its most loved products.

-- Posted February 1, 2013

References

"corn.” Dictionary.com. Accessed: July 25, 2011.

Gustaitis, Joseph. “The Explosive History of Popcorn: From Maize to Microwaves, America’s Best-Loved Snack Food Has Long Been a Favorite Treat.” American History. (October 2001): 32-36.

Hardeman, Nicholas P. 1981. Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks: Corn as a Way of Life in Pioneer America. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Smith, Andrew F., ed. 2007. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.----. 1999. Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.