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A weekly show where we endeavor to answer one of your big questions. This week, Bradley Stein asks, "How did eating popcorn become a custom at movie theaters?"


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Hi, I'm Craig. I eat popcorn like this, and this is Mental Floss Video. Today, I'm going to answer Bradley Stein's big question, "How did eating popcorn become a custom at movie theaters?" Nowadays, movie theaters depend on popcorn. They earn about 85% of their profits and 40% of their total revenue from concessions, but that wasn't always the case. Today I'm gonna tell you how the tradition got started. Let's get started.

(Intro)

Popcorn as a snack gained popularity in the U.S. during the 19th century. It quickly became associated with the places where it was sold, like fairs and circuses. It was easy to make and transport for these events. The first steam-powered popcorn maker was invented in 1885. Eating popcorn in movie theaters, on the other hand, wasn't a custom yet. Probably because there wasn't movie theaters yet.

In 1907, there were around 5,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S., which were often little spaces the size of a storefront that showed moving pictures for five cents. It became common for food vendors to set up shop near these theaters, so food was initially part of the movie-going experience, but that changed when a bunch of huge classy movie theaters emerged in the '20s.

There were typically signs posted saying "no food allowed" at the theaters, and they didn't sell food either. This was probably because the owners didn't want to deal with messes in their fancy venues...and they also hated fun.

Plus, movie theaters were inspired by actual theaters rather than places like the circus. Some of them cost millions to build and wasn't uncommon for them to have antiques, chandeliers, marble columns, and expensive carpets. Popcorn and expensive carpet are not friends. Me and popcorn aren't friends either, because I eat it. You don't eat your friends.

By the '30s, some theater owners were allowing vendors to keep food stands either inside or directly outside. One thing that probably helped convince them to do this was that movies now had sound, so eating would no longer be a loud distraction.

Another big factor was the Great Depression. People could afford to see a movie and spend five to ten cents on a bag of popcorn. Plus, the theater owners benefited financially from having popcorn vendors there because the vendors paid them a daily fee. Even with a fee, vendors earned a lot of money quickly.

One of the earliest movie theater popcorn vendors was a woman named Julia Braden. The "Popcorn Gal," as no one called her. She first started a little stand at the Lynwood Theater in Kansas City. By the early '30s, she had expanded her business to four theaters and started earning $14,400 annually, which is about $336,000 today.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the Great Depression, so not everyone was profiting like Julia Braden. Some movie theaters started closing, but many were able to stay open thanks to popcorn. They lowered the cost of admission and started earning more through their own concession stands. And so, a custom was born.

Thanks for watching Mental Floss Video, which was made with the help of all of these popped kernels. If you have a big question of your own that you'd like answered, leave it below in the comments. I'll see you next week.