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Home / Popcorn: Ingrained in America's Agricultural History

Popcorn: Ingrained in America's Agricultural History

Ingrained in America's Agricultural History

This is a legacy page. Please see for the updated exhibit website.


Early History

Europeans Meet Popcorn

Popcorn Explosion

From the Field to the Table

How Does Popcorn Pop?

Related Links

Image Sources


Corn on cover of "Hybrid Popcorn in Indiana"

Front cover of "Hybrid Popcorn in Indiana," published in 1946 at the
Purdue University Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Everyone seems to love popcorn. It has become a mainstay at movie theaters, sporting events, amusement parks, and nearly everywhere else people gather. Although Americans are now such avid consumers of popcorn, and its agricultural history is long, its commercial history is comparatively short. Popcorn was not mentioned in early farm papers and seed trade catalogs until around 1880, but once the American public discovered it, popcorn's popularity quickly grew.

Popcorn & Candy stand

Popcorn and candy stand in a park at Topeka, Kansas, July 31, 1912.

Nearly all of the world's popcorn production is in the United States, with 25 states growing the crop. Over one fourth of the national production is in Nebraska, and Indiana produces only slightly less. Other major popcorn-producing states are Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri.

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Early History

Hopi boy planting corn

Hopi boy planting corn at Polacca, Arizona, 1918.

Scholars agree that corn, and popcorn, originated in the Americas. Precisely how it originated, however, is a topic of debate. It is believed by many experts that corn was developed by centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses like teosinte. There has also been much speculation about how popcorn may have been prepared or used by the native Americans, fueled by findings of popcorn in archeological digs. According to the Popcorn Board:

Rainbow Flint Corn

The oldest known corn pollen is scarcely distinguishable from modern corn pollen, judging by an 80,000-year-old fossil found 200 feet below Mexico City.

Rainbow Flint Corn
The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. Ranging from smaller than a penny to about 2 inches, the oldest Bat Cave ears are about 5,600 years old.

Rainbow Flint Corn
In tombs on the east coast of Peru, researchers have found grains of popcorn perhaps 1,000 years old. These grains have been so well-preserved
that they will still pop.

Rainbow Flint Corn
In southwestern Utah, a 1,000-year-old popped kernel of popcorn was found in a dry cave inhabited by predecessors of the Pueblo Indians.

Kernel image courtesy of Ricardo Salvador, Iowa State University

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Europeans Meet Popcorn

Sioux Native Americans holding corn

Sioux Native Americans on the Oak River Reservation in Manitoba, Canada, 1918.

European explorers throughout the Americas were introduced to, and intrigued by, popcorn. Around the year 1612, early French explorers through the Great Lakes region noted that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things. Writing of Peruvian Indians, Bernabé Cobo, a missionary in Peru between 1609 and 1629, remarked that they toasted "a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection."

The new settlers embraced popcorn. Colonial families sometimes ate popcorn
with sugar and cream for breakfast. Some colonists popped corn using poppers consisting of a cylinder of thin sheet-iron that revolved on an axle in front of the fireplace like a squirrel cage. Popcorn was still very much a small, home-grown crop.

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Popcorn Explosion

Popcorn really caught on during the 1890s and was very popular even through the Great Depression. Street vendors, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers, used to follow wherever a crowd might be. They were a common sight at fairs, parks, and expositions, and restaurants also began to sell this fluffy snack. During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries struggling families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.

Vendor with popcorn cart

Popcorn vendor at Paris, Illinois, August 3, 1912.

The first hybrid popcorn for commercial production, Minhybrid 250, was released in 1934 by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. It only grew well along the northern edge of the U.S. corn belt, but was quickly followed by hybrids adapted to the central region of the corn belt. These better adapted hybrids were developed by the Indiana and Kansas Agricultural Experiment Stations in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Bureau of Plant Industry, and were released in the early 1940s.

Popped & unpopped samples of popcorn

Two samples of popcorn before and after popping, showing difference in expansibility.

USDA Bureau of Plant Industry popcorn research included all aspects of cultivation, from seed selection, fertilizers and soils, to insect and disease control, to harvesting, storing and marketing. Current information on best practices was shared with farmers through USDA Farmers' Bulletins. One desirable trait of popcorn is expansibility, a measure of the volume ratio of popped corn to unpopped corn. Glass graduated cylinders, like the ones pictured here, were used to measure expansibility. Increasing the size of popped corn was just one aspect of Plant Industry hybrid research.

Horse-drawn plow at Arlington Farm

First cultivation of corn at Arlington Farm, Virginia, May 26, 1939. Notice the Washington Monument in the background.

During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops, which left little excess for making candy. Thanks to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual. Popcorn sales dropped during the late 1940s, however, when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters declined and, with it, popcorn consumption. The Popcorn Institute (a trade association of popcorn processors), began a campaign to convince consumers that popcorn was as good to eat while at home watching television as it was at the movies. A successful popcorn advertising partnership with Coca-Cola and Morton Salt, along with advertisements of individual popcorn companies' made the early 1950s the largest home-consumption growth period for the popcorn industry. In the 1980s, the popcorn industry saw another growth spurt with microwave popcorn. Americans today consume 17.3 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 68 quarts.

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From the Field to the Table

Mechanical picker
Harvesting popcorn with a mechanical picker.

Choosing the right time to harvest popcorn is tricky. It is best to delay harvesting until the corn has cured on the stalk as much as possible, but not so long that it is damaged by fall moisture or by corn stalks falling over. For decades, popcorn has been picked almost exclusively by machines.

Popcorn storage houses

Popcorn storage houses of the Albert Dickinson Co., Ord, Nebraska, June 4, 1912.

Once picked, the corn must be dried until it reaches its optimum moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. Proper air circulation in the crib is essential for drying and for prevention of mold and other harmful pests. Through the years, there have been many variations on storing and drying popcorn for future use, from natural air drying to artificial drying with heat, and large-scale crib drying by commercial processors to small-scale drying in wire cloth bags by families for home use.

Wire mesh bag full of corn hanging on post

Wire cloth bag for storing popcorn.

After the corn has been dried, it is transported to a processing plant where the kernels are shelled from the cob and move through several screens and separators to remove any damaged kernels or debris. Then the kernels are sent through polishing machines to rub off any chaff that may still be clinging to them. After processing, popcorn is packaged in containers. For wholesale use, the kernels are packaged in large bags of 25-, 50-, or 100-pound sizes. Meanwhile, for retail sale, smaller jars, bags or metal containers are used. Microwave popcorn has led to the creation of even more types of packaging.

Bags of popcorn on a railroad loading dock

Outgoing popcorn shipment, Neuber and Bruce, Odebolt, Iowa, November 12, 1912.

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How does popcorn pop?

The folklore of some Native American tribes told of spirits who lived inside each kernel of popcorn. The spirits were quiet and content to live on their own, but grew angry if their houses were heated. The hotter their homes became, the angrier they would become, shaking the kernels until the heat was too much. Finally, they would burst out of their homes and into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.

A kernel of popcorn does contain a small amount of water stored inside a circle
of soft starch. This is why popcorn needs to maintain a certain level of moisture. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel's hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water expands, building pressure against the hard starch surface. Eventually, this outer layer gives way, causing the popcorn to explode. As it explodes, the soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and bursts, turning the kernel inside out. The steam inside the kernel is released, and the popcorn is popped, hot and ready to eat. Salt, butter, and cream and sugar are optional.

Popped popcorn

Popped popcorn!

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Related Links

ARS USDA Popcorn Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Act Page
Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture page explaining the history and major provisions of the Popcorn Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Act [7 U.S. C. 7481-7491], which was signed into law on April 4, 1996.
Popcorn Board
The Popcorn Board works to expand the popcorn market through special promotions, research, and consumer education focusing on the qualities and economic importance of popcorn.
The Maize Page
Hosted by the Iowa State University Agronomy Department, the Maize Page provides maize resources for students, producers, and specialists.
National Corn Growers Association
Information relating to corn and popcorn is available here.

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Image Sources

Photograph images from: USDA Division of Cereal Crops and Diseases Photographs Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.

Cover illustration from: Smith, Glenn Marsh and Arthur M. Brunson. Hybrid Popcorn in Indiana. Bulletin 510. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Agricultural Experiment Station, 1946. NAL Call Number 100 In2P no.510.

Kernel image from: Ricardo Salvador, Iowa State University.

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Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Popcorn Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Web Page. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed 10 July 2001.

Brunson, Arthur M. and Carl W. Bower. Pop Corn: Farmers' Bulletin No. 1679, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, October 1931.

Brunson, Arthur Maxwell and Glenn M. Smith. Popcorn: Farmers' Bulletin No. 1679 revised, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept of Agriculture, 1948.

Cobo, Bernabé quoted in: Smith, Andrew F. Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Eldredge, John Crosby. Popcorn: its production, processing, and utilization. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University of Science and Technology, 1959.

Eldredge, John Crosby, and P. J. Lyerly. Popcorn in Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Agricultural Experiment Station, Agricultural Extension Service, Iowa State College, 1943.

Hartley, C. P., and J. G. Willier. Popcorn for the Home: Farmers' Bulletin No. 553, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, September

Hartley, C. P., and J. G. Willier. Popcorn for the Market: Farmers' Bulletin No. 554, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, September 1913.

The Popcorn Board Web Site. http://www.popcorn.orgChicago, Illinois: The Popcorn Board. Accessed 2 July 2001.

Smith, Andrew F. Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Smith, Glenn Marsh and Arthur M. Brunson. Hybrid Popcorn in Indiana. Bulletin 510. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Agricultural Experiment Station, 1946.

Ziegler, Kenneth E. "Chapter 7: Popcorn." In Specialty Corns. 2nd ed., ed. Arnel R. Hallauer, 199-234. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2001.

Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library (NAL) acquires, arranges, describes, preserves and makes available rare materials significant to the history of agriculture. Materials are obtained through donation or active collection in accordance with the established Special Collections collection development policy. Special Collections staff organize and describe materials according to archival principles and create descriptions and indexes to enhance access. Staff do not edit or otherwise modify the original materials. The views expressed in the collections do not necessarily reflect the policies of the National Agricultural Library or the United States Department of Agriculture.

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