Few things are as linked together in our cultural identity as movies and popcorn. Many Americans can’t imagine enjoying a movie in a theater without putting away a tub of the salt-and butter-covered snack, and a movie theater that doesn’t smell at least a little like popcorn just doesn’t seem right.

It wasn’t always this way, however. In the beginning of the movie industry, popcorn wasn’t even allowed in most theaters. Let’s trace the history of popcorn to find out how it became the go-to snack of the movies.

Emergence of popcorn

Photo of a street vendor selling popcorn under a tent
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Popcorn first started showing up in America in the early and mid 1800s, and it became a fixture at fairs and carnivals. The low cost of popcorn kernels, the aromatic smell that it produced, and excitement of the process of popping it made it an easy choice for vendors looking to sell high volumes of food at these outdoor events. It became so popular, in fact, that by 1848, the term “popcorn” was included in the “Dictionary of Americanisms.”

The food expanded past the carnival and fair circuit in 1885 when Charles Cretor invented the steam-powered popcorn maker. This machine further simplified the process of making popcorn and was designed from the start to be mobile. Popcorn was then sold on city streets and became a popular treat for Americans day to day.

Popcorn and early movie theaters

Black and white of an old theater
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While both popcorn and movie theaters were increasing in popularity at the same time, the original branding efforts behind the first theaters put them at odds. Movie theaters were first designed to be luxury experiences for those with discerning taste along the lines of a traditional theater. The expensive carpeting and drapes with which they were decorated didn’t need food spilled on them, so all food was banned from early theaters.

In addition, the first movies didn’t have sound, which meant that attending a movie required that a guest be literate to read the cards that moved the story forward. This all changed in 1927 with the introduction of talkies. These movies featured a full soundtrack and spoken dialogue, which meant that they were now accessible to everyone.

While movie theaters still banned food inside the theaters, that hadn’t stopped vendors with mobile popcorn makers from setting up shop outside of the venue. So much popcorn was being sold to the crowd before shows that guests were asked to check their popcorn on their way into the movie – perhaps making popcorn the first food to be sneaked into the theater!

Popcorn is welcomed

Photo of people grabbing popcorn out of a bucket in a movie theater
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Theater owners were quick to see how much money vendors were making off the people attending their shows and soon offered them the option to sell indoors for a fee. This transition occurred while the Great Depression began to bear down on America, leaving most people eager for fun and cheap entertainment and food. Popcorn, often costing as little as five cents a bag, along with a movie, fit this requirement exactly.

There was one last step that would tie movies and popcorn together forever. During the Second World War, sugar was rationed so it could be sent overseas to the troops. As the sugar shortage intensified, popcorn became the more popular movie snack. By the end of the war in 1945, over half the popcorn eaten in America was being consumed in movie theaters.

Popcorn opens the door for other snacks

Photo of popcorn, candy, and nuts
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Popcorn paved the path for people to enjoy snacks inside the movie theater, and today items such as nachos, pretzels, and many other regional treats are prepared in house for moviegoers. Candy bounced back after the sugar ration was over and competes today for shelf space at every movie concession stand.

The industry has in some places adopted an even more personal approach and begun serving full meals and cocktails right at patrons’ seats. However, for all the competition, popcorn remains the quintessential movie snack and doesn’t look like it will be unseated anytime soon.