Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Butter-Kist popcorn machine advertisement in the May 1919 issue of Popular Science [Source: Novak Archive]

Corn of Ill Repute: How Butterkist Helped Make Movie Popcorn Respectable

• January 15, 2013 • 4:52 PM

How a salt-of-the-Earth Midwest manufacturer learned to butter up customers and see its sales explode.

Butter-Kist popcorn machine advertisement in the May 1919 issue of Popular Science [Source: Novak Archive]

Today, concession sales often account for as much as 40 percent of a movie theater’s profits. But popcorn wasn’t always welcome at the movies.

Popcorn vendors of the late 19th century weren’t the most respectable folk. They simply went to where the people were, whether on the city street or a noisy outdoor gathering like a county fair. When movie houses started opening up across the country in the early 1900s, opportunistic popcorn vendors would often park outside—to the chagrin of theater owners left sweeping up the treat’s messy leftovers that always wound up on the theater floor.

A small Indianapolis manufacturing company started to change popcorn’s dicey reputation with theater owners. In 1914 the Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company started making popcorn machines, most designed exclusively for use indoors and running on electricity rather than steam (which was seen as dangerous to use inside given the open flame).

Holcomb & Hoke thrived by allowing retail stores and theaters to sell popcorn as a low-overhead sideline business; but its true genius was making popcorn machines respectable through smart direct advertising. The company advertised in its local Indianapolis newspapers (below) and within a few years was buying ads in national magazines like Popular Science; it also helped bring an air of professionalism by bothering to extensively train its commissioned salespeople. The company was so proud of its sales techniques that in 1915 James Holcomb produced a book titled, Salesology of the Butter-Kist Popcorn Machine.

And there was something to write about; by 1919 the company’s Butter-Kist popcorn machines were producing 120 million packages of popcorn a year.

In his 2001 book on the history of popcorn, Andrew F. Smith notes the uphill battle to win respectability at the dawn of the 1920s:

In their 1920 catalog Holcomb & Hoke claimed to have rescued the popcorn industry from the clutches of disreputable street vendors: “the class of men that run such places on the street is thrown around their popcorn carts with a gust of wind.”

The Depression cooled Holcomb & Hoke’s popcorn popper business and it stopped manufacturing the machines in 1934. Today, the name Butterkist may be better known in the UK, where the brand lives on.

Early ad for a Butter-Kist popcorn machine in the September 7, 1914 Indianapolis Star

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for and

More From Matt Novak

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us

Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

What Makes You Neurotic?

A new study gets to the root of our anxieties.

Fecal Donor Banks Are Possible and Could Save Lives

Defrosted fecal matter can be gross to talk about, but the benefits are too remarkable to tiptoe around.

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014