Corn was first domesticated in Mexico 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered that people have known about popcorn for thousands of years. In Mexico, for example, they’ve found remnants of popcorn that dates to around 3600 BC. The popping of the kernels was achieved manually through the 19th century, being sold on the east coast of the USA under names such as ‘Pearls’ or ‘Nonpareil’. The term ‘popped corn’ first appeared in John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Popcorn is an ingredient in Cracker Jack, and in the early years of the product, it was popped by hand.
Popcorn’s accessibility increased rapidly in the 1890s with Charles Cretors’ invention of the popcorn maker. Cretors, a Chicago candy store owner, created a number of steam-powered machines for roasting nuts, and applied the technology to the corn kernels. By the turn of the century, Cretors had created and deployed street carts equipped with steam-powered popcorn makers.
During the Great Depression, popcorn was fairly inexpensive at 5–10 cents a bag and became popular. Thus, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived and became a source of income for many struggling farmers, including the Redenbacher family, namesake of the famous popcorn brand. During World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before. The snack was popular at theaters, much to the initial displeasure of many of the theater owners, who thought it distracted from the films. Their minds eventually changed, however, and in 1938 a Midwestern theater owner named Glen W. Dickson installed popcorn machines in the lobbies of his theaters. The venture was a financial success, and the trend soon spread.
In 1970, Orville Redenbacher’s namesake brand of popcorn was launched. In 1981, General Mills received the first patent for a microwave popcorn bag, with popcorn consumption seeing a sharp increase of tens of thousands of pounds in the years following.