A cinema wouldn’t be complete without the overwhelming aroma of popcorn. I can’t remember a time when this cholesterol-spiking buttery goodness hasn’t been an imperative element of my moviegoing experience. But why do we so strongly associate popcorn with the movies, and how did it become the number one snack of choice?
Popped corn first made an appearance as a snack food around 1840, and came to prominence at fairs and carnivals. With the invention of the first portable popcorn machine in 1885, its popularity increased dramatically. Popcorn vendors followed the crowds and introduced popcorn neophytes to the joys of butter, salt, and crunch. It was a cheap and tasty hit.
The popcorn boom (or pop) coincided with the dawn of nickelodeons ("nickel odeon", say it out loud) and dime theatres in the USA. There were no concession stands within the theatres at the time, so vendors would sell their treats outside. Though patrons loved it, theatre owners were less than impressed.
Popcorn was messy, permeated the air with a distinct smell and had associations with burlesque. Furthermore, they felt that it interrupted the cinematic experience with its excessive crunchiness and because patrons would leave the theatre to buy fresh bags.
Theatre profits began to drop with the onset of the Great Depression, and desperate owners sought new ways to make money. This resulted in widespread integration of popcorn machines and concession stands within cinemas. A nickel bag of popcorn was one of the few treats that people could afford. Unlike many other confections such as candy bars, popcorn sales increased during the Depression and World War II because they weren’t affected by sugar rationing.
A night at the movies was one of the cheapest forms of entertainment a family could indulge in. Some owners even lowered ticket prices when they installed their popcorn machines and still enjoyed substantial profit. $10 could by owners around 50 kilograms of kernels, which would be used to sell at least a thousand bags of popcorn.
By the time that rationing was lifted on sugar and chocolate bars reappeared in theatres, the notion of popcorn at the movies had been strongly ingrained in the minds of patrons. As we all know, this tradition is still alive and well, although it certainly costs a great deal more than a few cents. Today, snack stands account for a whopping 40 per cent of the average movie theatre's net revenue. And while new snacks are constantly being introduced, popcorn endures.