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LAST SATURDAY, I ate popcorn during the Metropolitan Opera’s HD presentation of Strauss’s searing Elektra. What’s more, the popcorn came from a theater concession directly related to this fetching bit of machinery produced around 1910.
Charles Cretors was a confectioner in 1885 Decator, Illinois. He was also something of a showman and arranged his shop so passersby could watch the candy being made. Then, disappointed with a steam-powered peanut roaster he bought, he designed his own and set it up in a cart out front.
The Cretors could roast peanuts, coffee and chestnuts while making popcorn. Charles took one to the Midway of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, where its aromas tantalized the crowd.
By 1910, C. Cretors & Co. was building the Model D Popcorn and Peanut Wagon, an upscale version designed to be hauled by a pair of horses. And it wasn’t long before a horseless counterpart arrived.
The year 1915 was Big Time for the U.S. automotive industry, with more than 850,000 passenger cars produced. Among 160,000 trucks were nine Cretors Popcorn and Peanut Wagons.
The Cretors Popcorn and Peanut Wagon was likely based on a Ford AA truck. The one described in March 1966 R&T had a 243-cu.-in. four-cylinder Buda engine producing 22.5 hp. Its popcorn popper and peanut roaster were steam-powered. Additional plumbing operated a roof-mounted whistle, all the better to attract the crowd to within aroma distance.
Like many early machines, the Cretors steam engine depended upon a ball governor to control its rotational speed. Its flywheel was linked by belt to spinning weighted balls, centrifugal force levering them upward with increased rpm. In turn, their central arms actuated a valve controlling the steam.
Speed governance of this sort gave rise to the term “balls-out.” At peak rpm, the weighted balls spun at their maximal orbiting.
Another crowd pleaser of a Cretors Popcorn and Peanut Wagon was Tosty Rosty Man, a clown who appeared to keep the peanuts and popcorn in rotation during roasting.
A Cretors Popcorn and Peanut Wagon cost $4165, a chunk of cash in 1915; figure around $98,000 in today’s dollars. The Cretors Wagon’s products went for 5¢ a sack, whether salt-roasted peanuts or buttered popcorn. Today’s movie goers would find this a real bargain; a nickel in 1915 calculates out to around $1.20 in 2016.
Popcorn and Peanut Wagons are used today in Disney and other amusement venues around the world. And, indeed, these are replicas built by the same C. Cretors & Co, today a leader in designing and manufacturing equipment for food processing, food service and concessions. It’s in its sixth generation of family ownership.
The company’s slogan, most appropriate, is “We invented the Popcorn Machine, then Just Kept Going.”
Somehow, this heritage comforts me while I’m munching popcorn as I watch grand opera. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016