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Why Is Popcorn the Default Movie Theater Snack?

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It’s hard to imagine attending the latest blockbuster without a jumbo bucket of excessively buttery, salty popped corn. (Or, at least, getting a whiff of it.)

Popcorn was hugely popular at fairs and carnivals in the mid-1800s. Street vendors were able to easily make and sell the delicious, aromatic snack food by the bag when the first steam-powered popcorn maker was created in 1885. However, movie theaters wanted to stay far, far away from the pungent, crunchy grub.

They strove to associate themselves more with the latter half of their name: the theater. A real theater would refuse to be associated with food that would be noisily chomped on and messily strewn about by consumers during showings. Before talkies, literacy was a necessity for film-goers, and movie theaters strove to target a well-educated crowd.

In 1927, with the dawn of talkies, movies were no longer just geared towards a "sophisticated" and literate audience. Going to the movies was an activity anyone could enjoy. This coincided with the Great Depression, and Americans wanted cheap entertainment that would help them to get lost in a new reality. Movies fit the bill.

Although early theaters weren’t equipped to handle popcorn machines, independent vendors were quick to jump at the opportunity of selling directly to consumers. Corn kernels were cheap, so popcorn was inexpensive (ranging from five to ten cents a bag) and patrons who were not well-off could enjoy a bag of the goodness. Vendors began selling popcorn to people outside of the theater, allowing for a double profit of simple passersby and film-goers alike. The snack was everywhere. Soon, vendors could, for a small fee, sell popcorn in the lobby directly to people entering the theater.

Movie theater owners began to cut out the street vendors and sold popcorn themselves. Theaters that refused to change with the times and have their own popcorn makers suffered, as the cheap snack became in-demand. (One theater owner even lowered the price of his movie tickets in order to encourage people to come for the food.) For theater owners, the way to stay alive during the Depression was to give the people what they wanted.

During World War II, the sales of popcorn in the United States really hit off. Sugar was sent overseas for the military, so there were not as many resources for the creation of candies and soda. Meanwhile, there was no salt or kernel shortage. The food's popularity continued to grow, and the rest is movie history.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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