Part of the reason we grow our own produce is that it is a frugal way to bring wholesome foods to the table. Likewise, movie theaters sell popcorn and treats partly in the name of frugality. Theater owners must share the money they earn from the sale of tickets with the film industry, but they get to keep 100% of their profits from treat and popcorn sales. Not bad! In fact, treats alone, including popcorn, account for over 40% of movie theater revenues. But why did we start eating popcorn at the movies in the first place?
Insert movie-like, moving back in time soundtrack here.
Charles Manley, an inventor from Butte, Montana, invented the electric popcorn machine in 1925, but Samuel Rubin, a concessionaire and businessman from New York, is credited with popcorn’s cultural standing in movie theaters.
Rubin was born in 1918. During his lifetime, the “moving pictures” would experience drastic transformations from silent films to movies with their own soundtrack, to the advent of television. Rubin introduced popcorn into New York movie theaters in the 1930′s. This has earned him the nickname, “Sam the Popcorn Man”.
The ramifications are significant, to say the least, for introducing popcorn as a commodity in the movie theater also introduced the concession, an aspect of the establishment that has since become part of the architecture of movie theaters across America. Indeed, the original concession typically stood alone. Popcorn and other snacks were sold outside of movie establishments, often off wagons. Today, these are antiques displayed in some modern movie theaters, adding an almost mythical touch to the experience and providing an opportunity for the inquisitive mind to learn about the past.
Rubin was a vendor and businessman at the age of six already, selling pretzels in public places in New York City and later selling flags. It is in Long Island, New York, that he first began selling popcorn. He was twelve years old. He worked for a company called ABC Vending and later became the vice president and remained at the helm until shortly before his death. He managed the concessions at major sports stadiums as well as in Central Park, the Empire State Building and movie theaters on Broadway. He owned at least ten theaters.
If you consider how popcorn begins with small kernels and explodes into a new, several times larger expression, it is only fitting that the creator of the most successful snack food in the history of moving pictures might also be a man whose influence expanded from humble beginnings. Popcorn’s success was rather explosive. By the 1950′s, movie theater owners made more money off popcorn sales than off the sale of movie tickets. However, the salty, buttery and irresistible snack was not welcome inside the establishment initially.
Popcorn was first introduced to the public as a snack food around 1840, at fairs and carnivals. The first portable (relatively speaking) popcorn maker was invented in 1885. Portability leads to expansion. Expansion leads to exposure. Exposure leads to popularity. Popularity leads to habit. All of this from a kernel of popcorn! Vendors followed the crowds and the crowds looked for vendors. At a time when the average family did not have much money to spare on leisure, popcorn was a cheap, tasty and welcome little pleasure.
Popcorn vendors were not allowed inside theaters because popcorn was too messy. However, this began to change during the depression (late 1920′s) because as financial resources dropped, so did the ordinary family’s ability to afford entertainment. Popcorn remained popular, so in order to capture more revenue, theater owners began to invite vendors inside and to install and operate their own popcorn machines at this time. Movie fans followed.
Some believe that popcorn saved movie theaters – and indeed the movie industry itself – when TV came along in 1928 and especially later in the 1950′s when it became common in even the most modest homes. By then, popcorn and a movie had become a strongly ingrained, socially desirable form of entertainment; the perfect comfort-food-comfort-activity combination. Even prior to this, during World War II, popcorn had a marketable advantage over sweet treats since it did not contain sugar. War-time sugar rations meant candy was no longer available at theaters. Popcorn had carved itself a strong cultural hold that would not waver even after the re-introduction of sugar.
Our connection to popcorn is unlike any other connection we have with snack foods. We do not typically make our own chocolate covered raisins, but we make our own popcorn. We do not typically make our own chips, but we make our own popcorn. Like the grill, the home popcorn popper provides a hands-on experience that is integral to the experience of enjoying the light snack.
Fresh, home-popped popcorn provides a window into one of the small mysteries of this world. As much as we understand how heat causes the kernel to expand and explode into the wonderfully light and familiar snack, each pop remains somewhat of an idiosyncrasy of nature; an irresistible character trait we cannot quite explain.
PS: Sharyn Dimmick, of The Kale Chronicles, made a wonderfully true and funny observation in her comment to this post. To my title, “Why Do We Eat Popcorn at The Movies?” She responds, “Why do we eat popcorn at home? Because we know what is in it, unlike movie theater popcorn.” Now that is a perfect punchline!
You might also be interested in reading about the Samuel Rubin Foundation.