Hello, Snackers. We’re zooming back a few decades to learn about a salty Space Age treat, in the form of a popcorn-filled spaceship. To snackfinity and beyond!
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I still remember my first encounter with Jiffy Pop, sometime in the mid-1980s, during a short family vacation at a YMCA camp. Not to be all nostalgic for an imperfect era, but the memory evokes a simpler time for me, one of fishing from a quiet dock and running around in the oak-filled woods and picking wild raspberries from overgrown thickets that have long since been ripped out to make room for a McMansion-filled subdivision with streets named for the rustic cabins that once dotted this now-suburban landscape. (True story, alas.)
Anyway, I specifically remember watching as my mom placed this weird covered pie tin on top of our slightly sketchy cabin stovetop, turned on the heat, and waited for the popping to start. Kernel by kernel, burst by burst, the foil expanded, until it was a giant, shiny dome, some cross between a metallic mushroom sculpture, a science fair experiment, and a piñata filled with popcorn. It felt like magic.
I was far from the only one to have this experience with Jiffy Pop. From its founding, the company promoted its product as something amazing and mesmerizing, possibly conjured by a benevolent spell-chanting witch. Literally:
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Jiffy Pop is what we remember and what’s still around, but it wasn’t the first popcorn brand to use the basic concept of a single-serving container heated up on the stovetop.
In the early 1950s, there was something called TV Time, the first step in popcorn’s long march of ever more convenient preparation methods. TV Time was essentially a little box with pre-measured packets of popcorn, oil, and salt. Cook this popcorn in this oil, add this salt. It was a huge hit, selling 2.5 million packages in 1954, and a huge advertising campaign that included licensing Mary Poppins and Peter Pan for promotional purposes, but its rise turned out to be too fast for its owner to keep up with production and promotion.
Plus, in 1954, a new competitor emerged, one that had figured out how to combine all those elements into the same package, which could then be discarded—no more washing an oily pan, just chuck it all in the trash when you’re done eating! The inventors were named Betty Robins and Benjamin Colman and their product was called called E-Z Pop. It was advertised as something you could make “in a jiffy” and was perhaps most famous for this ad featuring disembodied heads doing some sort of Beat poetry proto-rap:
It was modern, it was novel, it was so cool you could scat about it—a perfect 1950s snack, really.
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For reasons I genuinely can’t discern, E-Z Pop never quite took off, and Robins and Colman sold their patented packaging to the Taylor-Reed Corporation. Meanwhile, Robins’s brother-in-law, Fred Mennen, looked at the packaging and thought it could use some improvements—namely, a stronger handle (to withstand shaking) and a top that could expand even more, lessening the amount of burned popcorn. He and Robins worked to patent this tweaked design, and then Mennen bought out the full rights to use it and started marketing it under the name Jiffy Pop, in 1959. This time, it sold. One facility, in California, was cranking out 15,000 units of Jiffy Pop every day by 1961.
The Taylor-Reed Corporation saw the whopping success of their new competitor and filed a patent infringement suit in 1960, ultimately winning their case. Robbins also sued Mennen a few years later, with the two settling by agreeing that Mennen would sell Jiffy Pop and split the proceeds with his co-inventor. None of this is actually all that interesting to me, honestly (corporate lawsuits rarely are, IMO), but it’s an indication of Jiffy Pop’s success, and if you do like to wade into primary sources and detailed discussions of matters like the specific concavity of popcorn packaging, here’s the ruling.
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We’re now entering the “wild speculation” part of this post, so take it with all the caveats and the knowledge that I haven’t found any direct evidence to support this, but … I have to think that the spaceship-evoking aesthetics of Jiffy Pop helped contribute to its success. Hear me out.
These stovetop popcorns were very much convenience foods from an era filled with convenience everything; they were also products an era whose cultural touchstones included the space race and nuclear testing (here’s a fascinating piece by nuclear anthropologist Marin Pfeiffer on nuclear weapon laboratory advertisements and the ways they played on longstanding tropes of American culture). It was also, not at all coincidentally, a time rising American fascination with UFOs, a trend that had begun in earnest with a sighting in 1947. (Read this excellent Slate piece by Kelsey Atherton for more on that.)
Within this context, it’s hard to look at these “magic,” silvery, otherworldly snack containers and not see them as evocative of both flying saucers and mushroom clouds.
(Or maybe alien heads, given this movie poster from 1957.)
I’m not seeing many comparisons between Jiffy Pop (or E-Z Pop) and flying saucers or spaceships or mushroom clouds in the newspaper archives—there are a couple, but not an overwhelming number—which is what makes me hesitant to go too far with my assumptions of how the products were received. However, there also just wasn’t a lot written about these popcorn products at time, other than their appearances in many, many newspaper ads. If people were drawing a connection themselves, in any direct way, it was on an informal basis, not as fodder for food columnists. To this end, I will offer one data point indicating that this was part of a broader cultural conversation. It’s this:
That’s the Markel Building in Richmond, Virginia. When it was constructed, in 1965, it quickly earned three nicknames: “Flying Saucer,” “Spaceship,” and “the Jiffy Pop Building,” all of were in sufficiently wide use that they were included on the building’s National Register of Historic Places nomination in 2007. When Americans of the 1960s saw that silvery form, those were the things that came to mind—it was either Jiffy Pop or spaceship. It had to be one or the other.
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Jiffy Pop sales were strong until the mid-1980s, when microwaves started to enter nearly every home in the USA, and a newer, even more convenient form of popping corn emerged. Jiffy Pop made its own variety for that newfangled appliance, but it never entirely took off. These days, the brand is still around (and owned by Conagra), but only in the form of the iconic stovetop, with plenty of nostalgia built into the marketing. It’s also become a standby, apparently, for hikers, who like snacks but tend not to carry microwaves with them. (Sidebar but this travelogue by a guy who hitchhiked around Ireland with a mini-fridge is an oddly delightful and delightfully odd read.) Jiffy Pop works on a camp stove, so it’s a great way to have some cheap, freshly-prepared food, and many recent mentions of the product are from people who have some packages stashed in their massive packs on long treks.
It also hasn’t entirely disappeared from pop culture discussions of strange things in the sky. Remember Balloon Boy, that weird and kinda disturbing cultural moment from 2009, with the runaway balloon that supposedly had a little kid inside? Yeah, that was strange. Anyway, the aircraft in question was a giant puffy silvery floppy … thing … that looked like a prop from a 1950s sci-fi flick—Invasion of the Saucer Men, for example—and was described in several different media outlets as “a giant Jiffy Pop pan that flies.”
Thanks for reading! Two quick notes!
I’ll be leading a writing workshop (on seeking out small details that tell a big story) at TravelCon on April 28th in Memphis. I’d love to see you there! Conference info is here and here’s the info for my workshop.
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