An ancient snack

Corn has long been a staple food in the Americas, and the history of popcorn runs deep throughout the region. 

 

The oldest known popcorn was discovered in New Mexico in 1948, when Herbert Dick and Earle Smith discovered individually popped kernels that have since been carbon-dated to be approximately 5,600 years old.

 

Evidence of early popcorn consumption has also been discovered throughout Central and South America, particularly Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico. Some cultures also used popcorn to decorate clothing and other ceremonial embellishments.

Innovative popping methods

In ancient times, popcorn was commonly prepared by stirring the kernels in a sand-filled pottery jar heated by a fire. This method was used for thousands of years before the invention of the first popcorn-popping machine.

 

The popcorn-popping machine was first introduced by entrepreneur Charles Cretors at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His machine was powered by steam, which ensured all the kernels would be heated evenly. This minimized the number of unpopped kernels and enabled users to pop the corn directly into their desired seasonings.

 

Cretors continued to refine and build upon his machine, and by 1900, he introduced the Special – the first large horse-drawn popcorn wagon.

Rise and resurgence of popularity

Popcorn skyrocketed in popularity in the early 1900s, and given its relatively low cost, it remained a common food during the Great Depression. When sugar rations during World War II made other snacks hard to come by, popcorn consumption was further catapulted to three times its pre-war levels.

 

But popcorn consumption didn’t always trend upward. As more homes purchased televisions in the mid-20th century, attendance at movie theaters dropped, and popcorn sales dipped along with it. 

 

This slump was quickly reversed when General Mills introduced the first microwave popcorn in 1981, which led to a huge increase in consumption. Today, Americans eat approximately 13 billion quarts of popped corn (42 quarts per person) each year.

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