Why is Popcorn Synonymous with the Movies?

It’s movie season, everyone!

Boxing Day saw the release of two blockbusters in Australia – Les Miserables and The Hobbit. Both films had hordes of people flocking to the cinema to watch them whilst stuffing their faces with snacks. At least, that’s what I did.

A cinema wouldn’t be complete without the overhelming aroma of popcorn the second you step inside. Personally, I can’t see a film without exposing myself (and my clothing) to it’s salty and buttery goodness. Popcorn is a prerequisite, nay, an imperative part of my movie going experience…as is the subsequent picking of stray pieces out of my bra for hours afterwards. But why? Why do we so strongly associate popcorn with the movies, and how did it become the number one snack of choice at the cinema?

Popcorn first made an appearance as a snack food around 1840 and could mostly be found at fairs and carnivals. In 1885, with the invention of the first portable popcorn machine, its popularity increased dramatically. Popcorn vendors followed the crowds, set up shop, 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 nickelodeon/dime theatres. There were no snack or 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, owners felt that it interrupted the movie going experience with its excessive crunchiness and the fact that patrons would leave the theatre to buy fresh bags.

A traditional style popcorn cart

During the onset of The Great Depression, theatre profits began to drop and desperate owners sought new ways to make money. This resulted in a widespread integration of popcorn machines and concession stands within movies theatres.  A nickel bag of popcorn was one of the few treats that people could afford. Unlike many other confections, such as candy bars, sales of popcorn increased during the Great Depression and WWII, as it wasn’t effected 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 saw profits go through the roof. $10 could by owners a hundred pounds 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 candy bars reappeared in theatres, the notion of popcorn at the movies had been so strongly ingrained in the minds of patrons that there was no changing it. As we all know, this tradition is still alive and well…although it certainly costs a great deal more than a nickel. Today, concession stand sales account for a whopping 40 percent of a movie theatre’s net revenue. And while new snacks are constantly being introduced, popcorn endures.

So next time you’re at the movies and want to indulge in a popcorn craving, justify it with the knowledge that you’re participating in a tradition that helped saved the movie business during times of hardship and war.

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