How Popcorn Saved Movie Theaters During the Great Depression and Never Left
There’s a fascinating story behind everyone’s favorite movie theater snack.
Today, movie theaters and popcorn go together like peas and carrots, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, when movie theaters were just starting to pop up, popcorn was a popular street food, hawked by vendors on city streets. At that time, movie theaters were considered a luxury experience on par with Broadway shows, and food and drink were strictly prohibited. But that didn’t stop patrons from sneaking the buttery snack into the fancy theaters.
“Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters,” Andrew Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, told Smithsonian. “They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn’t want popcorn being ground into it.” Popcorn was too low brow, not to mention noisy to eat.
But things began to change when movies added sound in 1927. With literacy no longer a prerequisite, the movie theater industry availed itself up to a much larger customer base. By 1930, attendance to movie theaters had reached 90 million per week, Smithsonian reports. And audiences were hungry.
In the midst of the Great Depression, people were flocking to the movies for a cheap diversion from everyday life. Selling for just 5 to 10 cents a bag, popcorn was a luxury most people could afford.
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As more and more people began showing up with a bag of popcorn in hand—thanks to the vendors lined up outside—theater owners began to realize how much money could be had in a pile of corn kernels, and the smart ones began selling the crunchy snack.
By the mid-1930s, the movie theater business was beginning to flounder. “But those that began serving popcorn and other snacks survived,” Smith explained. Realizing that their profits were inexplicably tied to concessions, popcorn and movie theaters became forever tied.
Today, movie theaters make an estimated 85% profit off of concession sales, which accounts for 46% of movie theater’s overall profits. And popcorn, as cheap and easy to make as ever, isn’t going anywhere.