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

October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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