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 BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

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

Recent Posts

December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.