Whether sweet, salty, buttered, or plain, or strung on thread to garland a tree for Christmas – we are, of course, talking about that quintessential American snack food, popcorn!
Popcorn is a specific variety of corn – Zea mays everta – characterized by kernels with hard shells that explode when subjected to high heat due to the internal pressure generated by the buildup of steam. Archaeological records indicate that popcorn, a New World crop, was known in the Americas as early as 5600 years ago.
By the 19th century, the treat was being made over open fires and on stovetops in throughout wide swaths of the US, but the use of the name “popped corn” did not appear until 1848. Charles Cretors’ invention in the 1890s of a steam-powered popcorn maker deployed in public carts greatly increased popcorn’s popularity.
World War I sugar rationing led to a decline in candy production and an increase in popcorn consumption, and the Great Depression spurred consumption to even greater heights due to popcorn’s inexpensive cost. By 1938, popcorn had been introduced to movie theater concession stands, encouraging its spread around the world, though the U.S. remains to this day the largest producer of the grain.
Popcorn’s long history means, of course, that there exists a plethora of associated collectibles. Popcorn tins, tubs, buckets, bags, and boxes are some of the more popular, not only for their graphics, but also for their relatively small sizes, making them easy to store and display. Most are quite reasonable, but relative rarity can drive some prices much higher. Lithographed tins provide a number of examples, like the unopened T N T tin that recently sold online for $108, and the 1920s/30s Danny Boy tin for $141.50.
In the cross-collectibles category there are popcorn-themed ornaments by such makers as Hallmark, Northlight, Kurt Adler, Christopher Radko, Trevco, and many others. Hallmark’s 1990 “Hop ‘n Pop Popper” ornament appears to be one of the more popular at the moment, with a number of specimens selling for up to $40 at online auctions. Then there are items like the 1930s Mickey Mouse open fire popper that recently fetched $122.50, while Black Americana is represented by a 1920s Cracker Jack tin litho that was acquired by a collector for $127+.
Popcorn poppers and machines are generally for the more serious collector, due to price and/or size. Most table-top models, like Sunbeam’s 1970s “The Great American Popcorn Machine” – designed like an old-time popcorn wagon – reasonably sell for up to $40+, but age and rarity can push prices much higher, like the 1800s Quincy Hardware Mfg. Co. open fire popper that recently sold for $199.99.
Popcorn carts and wagons, and popcorn vending machines represent the apex of collecting, with many fetching several hundred to several thousand dollars. Recent examples are an old Holcomb & Hoke Butter-Kist Popcorn machine for $255; a Popcorn Sez vending machine for $510; a Popperette vending machine for $2125; and an antique Kingery popcorn/peanut vendor’s cart for $2400.
Interested in learning more about this fun collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and don’t forget to celebrate National Popcorn Day on January 19, 2018!
The Marion Popcorn Festival: A Fun-Filled History, by Michelle Rotuno-Johnson
Popcorn Palaces: The Art Deco Movie Theater Paintings of Davis Cone, by Michael Kinerk and DennisWilhelm – This one is just for fun.
Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America, by Andrew F. Smith
70-pound popcorn ball, valued at $700, stolen (The Blade) – True Crime story.
Collecting Vintage Popcorn Bags and Boxes (RetroPlanet) – A short intro to this particular category of popcorn collectibles.
J.H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum – Yes, this is a real museum! Has everything from boxes, bags, and tins to machines and advertising.
History of Popcorn | The History Kitchen (PBS Food) – Recipes included.
Popcorn Board > Facts & Fun > History of Popcorn – Official organization provides history, videos, FAQs, more.
Popcorn Machines (Pinterest) – In case your concept of a popcorn machine is limited to the few current imports, check these out.
Where Does Popcorn Come From? (KingofPop) – Entertaining article provides the pertinent facts.
Wyandot Popcorn Museum – One of just two popcorn museums in the world (the other is the Fentress). Specializes in popcorn wagons and machines.