A Brief History of Popcorn

11 Sep

Oldest Popcorn

Scientists have found traces of wild corn pollen as far back as 80,000 years ago, but the archeological record indicates corn was first domesticated in the highlands of Mexico some around 7000 BC (9000 years ago).

According to Popcorn.org, “the oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico.” Archeologists have dated some of the charred ears of corn found in the Bat Cave to 4000-5600 BC.

Corn/Popcorn Historically Popular Throughout Americas

Popcorn was one of the earliest foods eaten by indigenous people in the Americas. Proto-historians believe people harvested wild corn for at least a few centuries before the first domestication of the plan. Domesticated corn spread from central Mexico, and after a couple hundred generations corn had become a staple of the Latin American diet and popcorn was known throughout Central and South America.

Popcorn was an important ceremonial food for the Aztecs, and popcorn gifts were given to the priesthood and the gods. The Aztecs and other groups used popcorn as decorations for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments on statues of various gods (in particular, Tlaloc, the god of fertility and rain.

On observing an Aztec coming of age ceremony in the mid 16th century, Bernardino de Sahagun writes: “And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon (the girls’) heads.”

Another early account of a ceremony in honor of the Aztec gods who watched over fishermen reads: “They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water.”

In describing the Incans of the Peruvian highlands in 1650, Spanish explorer Cobo reported: “They toast a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.”

Popcorn in the U.S.

Corn first became a popular agricultural crop in the U.S. in the mid-19th century didn’t really become popular with the American public until the 1890s.

Popcorn remained a popular from the gay ’90s until after the Second World War. Vendors used to follow crowds around in big cities, pushing steam or gas-powered popcorn poppers through fairs, parks and expositions. A few enterprising businessmen introduced the idea of popcorn gift baskets and other popcorn gifts during this period.

Popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag during the Great Depression, and was one of the few luxuries low income families could scrape together the money for. In an interesting historical note, despite other businesses failing right and left during the early 1930s, the popcorn business thrived.

There was a sugar shortage in the U.S. during the Second World War, which meant candy production slowed to a dribble. Because of this, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual from 1943 to 1945.

Popcorn became less popular during the early 1950s, when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters dropped and, with it, popcorn consumption. However, Americans began eating popcorn at home again a decade or two later with the introduction of microwave popcorn. Today, the average American consumes about 51 quarts of popcorn.

Popcorn has developed so much since then that it is now considered a gourmet food product. While we added flavors including cheese and caramel to the traditional butter and salt choices a while ago, flavor choices go far beyond these three to include savory options, spicy options, and complex sweet toppings. Popcorn has gotten fancy and stayed popular through the years.

Learn more about our popcorn and fundraising efforts at our Popcorn Fundraising page.

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