The Fascinating History Of Gourmet Popcorn Tins

Corn can be used for so many things. While biofuel and industrial applications are among such options, turning corn into bread, cereal, dough, margarine, oil, pudding, scrapple, and whiskey is far more appetizing (via Encyclopedia Britannica). Perhaps the most explosive choice, though, is to pop corn!

Corn was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago, and popcorn has been a part of this development since the start, according to the Popcorn Board. The opinion of experts is that the first corn to ever be consumed was indeed prepared via popping. Evidence of this goes back 4,000 years, based on an old ear of popcorn discovered in a New Mexico cave. That culinary idea endured, and indigenous peoples like the Aztecs were still popping corn for both food and decoration as recently as the 16th century.

In more modern history, advances in farming technologies made corn a popular breakfast food (complete with milk or cream) in the United States during the 1800s. Then, in the late 19th century, this food became increasingly common as a treat around Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, especially since it was so affordable. That fact also made it a perfect snack during the Great Depression and at 20th-century movie theaters. Plus, Americans turned to popcorn to replace candy during the sugar rationing of World War II. Later, the invention of microwave popcorn in the '80s solidified its fame.

How exactly did popcorn end up as a gourmet, yuletide gift in tins, though?

Midwestern practicality started it all

Yet again, popcorn underwent a transformation that started in the Americas. Circa 1949, Garrett Popcorn started selling Buttery, Caramel Crisp, Cheese Corn, and Plain popcorn at five cents per bag in downtown Chicago. Before their very own eyes, denizens of the Windy City could watch the kernels get hot-air popped, kettle-cooked, and hand-scooped, fresh for their enjoyment. By 1977, fans had given the company the bright idea of mixing together Caramel Crisp and Cheese Corn in a single bag, thus creating what is now called "Chicago Mix," an icon of the Windy City. Then, come 1993, this venture went even bigger, letting consumers order popcorn for delivery by mail.

Adrienne Kardosh, the Garrett Brands VP of marketing, told Thrillist, "We shipped in tins to protect the kernels as they shipped around the country. We would receive handwritten mail orders, and then we would scoop it into tins in our shops." That idea apparently caught on with Garrett's competitors, and now the tin is a popcorn staple.

Bob Ramm, president of rival popcorn seller Topsy's, explored this popcorn tin concept for Kansas City Magazine, but with a slightly different rationale. "The tins kinda started as an accident," Ramm claims. "That's how we used to receive the popcorn oil, in those pails—plain, silver, metal cans." Since companies already had the material, Ramm points out, "Why throw that away? Since it was a food container to start with, put popcorn in it and sell it!"

The product makes a great gift

There's a bit more to tins of gourmet popcorn than just convenience, however. Thrillist notes these snack cans make a resurgence every winter, and the containers are often decorated with festive artwork. Writing for Kansas City Magazine, Ramm states that a competitor came up with the idea of hand-painting cans for yuletide aesthetics, but Topsy's was actually the first to print designs on the tins. Now, even superstore chains like Walmart carry such cans, and myriad smaller businesses ship them across the country with flavors like bourbon pecan, chocolate, "Detroit Mix," jalapeno, kettle corn, peanut brittle, ranch, and sea salt. Topsy's, as an example, sold a hundred thousand Christmas popcorn tins during 2021, including the best-selling popcorn tin design to date, known as "Plaza Lights." Word of mouth has caused such sales to explode over recent decades.

As Kardosh told Inside Hook, Chicago's harsh weather is partially responsible for this seasonal connection. Chicagoans seek out warm popcorn when it's cold outside, so they form an association in their minds between Garrett and winter. Then, the holidays roll around and folks naturally think of Garrett Popcorn. Plus, shoppers can order it for distant loved ones without shipping it themselves, and it comes pre-wrapped in decorated tin cans. Now that this practice is widespread, you can also just as easily pick out a popcorn present last minute from your local store.

Year after year, tins of gourmet popcorn make many feel holly and jolly indeed!