Although popcorn is typically thought of as a snack food today, popcorn was once a popular breakfast food. Ahead of its time and very likely a role model for breakfast cereals to come, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, popcorn was eaten just as we eat cereal today.
Long before the advent of the corn flake, Ella Kellogg enjoyed her popcorn ground with milk or cream. Although she discouraged in-between meal snacking, she urged others to eat popcorn at meals as popcorn was “an excellent food.” Ella understood, as her husband did, that popcorn was a whole- grain. John Harvey Kellogg praised popcorn as being “easily digestible and to the highest degree wholesome, presenting the grain in its entirety, and hence superior to many denatured breakfast foods which are found in the market.”
Holidays & Celebrations
Popcorn fascinated and particularly delighted the young, thus popcorn became increasingly popular around holiday time—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter and especially Christmas. Because of its low cost, popcorn was ideal for Christmastime decorations, food, and gift giving.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, popcorn balls were one of the most popular confections and often given as gifts. Their popularity spawned an industry of popcorn ball making gadgets. Victorian families often decorated fireplace mantels, doorways and Christmas trees with ornate ornaments made from popcorn balls. And by the turn of the century, most cookbooks featured at least one recipe.
The Great Depression
Popcorn was very popular from the 1890's until the Great Depression. Street vendors used to follow crowds around, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks and expositions.
During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag, was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived. An Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he'd lost.
Popcorn and the Movies
Unlike other confections, popcorn sales increased throughout the Depression. A major reason for this increase was the introduction of popcorn into movie theaters and its low cost for both patron and owner. One theater owner actually lowered the price of his theater tickets and added a popcorn machine. He soon saw huge profits.
The "talking picture" solidified the presence of movie theaters in the U.S. in the late 1920’s. Many theater owners refused to sell popcorn in their theaters because they felt it was too messy. Industrious vendors set up popcorn poppers or rented storefront space next to theaters and sold popcorn to patrons on their way into the theater. Eventually, theater owners began installing popcorn poppers inside their theaters; those who refused to sell popcorn quickly went out of business.
World War II
During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops, which meant there wasn't much sugar left in the United States to make candy. Thanks to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.
Slump and Bump
Popcorn went into a slump during the early 1950s, when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters dropped and with it, popcorn consumption. When the public began eating popcorn at home, the new relationship between television and popcorn led to a resurgence in popularity.
Percy Spencer, Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation, figured out how to mass-produce magnetrons which were being used to generate microwaves for use in World War II. Looking for post-war applications of Raytheon technology, Spencer spurred the development of the microwave oven in 1946. Popcorn was key to many of Spencer's experiments.
Microwave popcorn was available for the marketplace in the early 1980s.
Americans today consume 14 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 43 quarts.
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