History and Legends of Popcorn, Cracker Jacks and Popcorn Balls
© copyright 2004 by Linda Stradley - United States Copyright TX 5-900-517- All rights reserved.
This web site may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission and appropriate credit given. If you quote any of
the history information contained below for research in writing a book, magazine, newspaper article, school work or college research,
and/or television show production, you must give a reference to the author, Linda Stradley, and to the web site What's Cooking
There is a legend that old-timers tell of one particular summer when it got so hot that the corn in the fields stared popping right off the stalks. The cows and pigs thought it was a snow blizzard and they lay down and froze to death.
In American Indian folklore, some tribes were said to believe that quiet, contented spirits lived inside of each popcorn kernel. When their houses were heated, the spirits would become angrier and angrier, shaking the kernels, and when the heat became unbearable, they would burst out of their homes and into the air in a disgruntled puff of steam.
Most of the world's popcorn is grown in the Midwestern part of the United States - principally in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana where it can get mighty hot in the summer. Although popcorn has been with us since pioneer times, it was not until 1890 that popcorn became important enough to be raised as a crop for market. Before that time, individual families raised their own popcorn or bought it from their neighbors. Since that time, popcorn has brought enough income to its growers to earn the name "prairie gold."
An early Spanish account by Father Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), Franciscan priest and researcher of the Mexican culture, of a ceremony honoring the Aztec gods who watched over fishermen read:
"They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water."
Some historians suggest, but this theory has never been proved, that when the early English colonists held their first Thanksgiving celebration on October 15, 1621, an Indian named Quadequina brought an offering for the feast - a great deerskin bag of popped corn. The Pilgrims enjoyed this treat, which was to become a unique part of the American way of life. The early colonists called it popped corn, parching corn, and rice corn. Native Americans would bring popcorn snack to meetings with the English colonists as a token of goodwill during peace negotiations.
In American Indian folklore, some tribes were said to believe that quiet contented spirits lived inside of each popcorn kernel. When their houses were heated, the spirits would become angrier and angrier, shaking the kernels until the heat became unbearable, at which point the spirits would burst out of their homes and into the air in a disgruntled puff of steam.
Colonial housewives served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast (the first "puffed" breakfast cereal). Some colonists popped corn using a cylinder of thin sheet-iron that revolved on an axle in front of the fireplace like a squirrel cage.
1880s - The Albert Dickinson Co. of Odebolt, Iowa seems to be the first company to (since the 1880's). Their brands of popcorn were called Big Buster and Little Buster.
The first popcorn machine was invented by Charles Cretors of Chicago, Illinois in 1885. In order to test his machine, it was necessary for Charles to operate it on the street as the customer. He was issued a peddler’s license to use the machine on December 2, 1885. Until then, poppers were made to sit in front of stores to attract attention. The huge, ponderous popcorn machine with its gasoline burner became a familiar part of the scent. Street vendors used to follow crowds around, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks, and expositions. This practice continued up until the Depression years (1929-1939). Today much of the popcorn you buy at movies and fairs is popped in poppers made by the Cretors family.
With the opening of movie theaters across the nation early in the 20th century, popcorn became a part of the new excitement. During the Depression years (1929-1939), popcorn was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived. There is a story about an Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed. He bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he had previously lost.
During World War II (1941-1945), sugar was sent overseas for American troops. This meant thaat there wasn't much sugar left in the United States to make candy. Due to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.
When television became popular in the 1950s, popcorn sales again made a sudden rise (this time by an astonishing 500 per cent!) As families started buying television sets, they were changing their life-styles and staying home more and eating popcorn as they watched television.
1871 - According to the article How Cracker Jack Began, by Jeffrey Maxwell gives an fairly accurate story on his website
The song was first performed by Norworth's wife, soprano Nora Bayes, at the Ziegfield Follies and, by 1910, was a staple at all big league ballparks in America. The cry, "Getcha' peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jacks!" is still heard at sporting events and carnivals in America. Despite the fact that neither Norworth or Tilzer had ever been to a baseball game at the time the song was written, it is one of the most widely sung songs in America.
In 1958, on the 50th anniversary of this song, the Major League Baseball, Inc. presented Jack Norworth with a gold lifetime ball park pass.
There is a Nebraska legend that the popcorn ball is actually a product of the Nebraska weather. It supposedly invented itself during the "Year of the Striped Weather" which came between the years of the "Big Rain" and the "Great Heat" where the weather was both hot and rainy. There was a mile strip of scorching sunshine and then a mile strip of rain. On one farm, there were both kinds of weather. The sun shone on this cornfield until the corn began to pop, while the rain washed the syrup out of the sugarcane. The field was on a hill and the cornfield was in a valley. They syrup flowed down the hill into the popped corn and rolled it into great balls with some of them hundreds of feet high and looked like big tennis balls at a distance. You never see any of them now because the grasshoppers ate them all up in one day on July 21, 1874.
- from American Eats,
by Nelson Algren, published by University of Iowa Press, 1992
Albert Dickenson Co, Odebelt Historical Museum Association.
American Eats, by Nelson Algren, published by University of Iowa Prewss, 1992
Cornzappopin, by Barbara Williams, published by Hold, Rinehard and Winston, New York, NY, 1976.
CrackerJacks: A Brief History, FritoLay.
Doug Eckstein, Great-Great-Grand Nephew of Henry Eckstein.
Frito-Lay Press Releases.
How Cracker Jack Begin, by Jeffrey Maxwell.
Panati's Extraaordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati, published by Harper & Row, 1987.
Peanuts, Popcorn, Ice Cream, Candy and Soda Pop, by Solveig Paulson Russell, published by Abingdon Press, 1970.
Story of Jolly Time Popcorn.
The Food Chronology, by James Trager, published by Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
The Secret Life of Food, by Martin Elkort, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1991.
The Story of Corn, by Betty Fussell, published by North Point Press, New York, NY, 1992.
Wyandot Popcorn Museum.
What's Cooking America© copyright 2004 by Linda Stradley - United States Copyright TX 5-900-517- All rights reserved. -