Holcomb and Hoke made a fortune selling Popcorn machines from the 19-teens through the 1930s. Many of the machines had a peanut toasting attachment. Vintage peanut bag, ca 1920, eBay
Just a Couple of Nuts…
James I. Holcomb and Fred Hoke hardly knew each other in 1894 when they first contemplated becoming business partners after a chance meeting in a Sunday School class. Two years later, they established a partnership and business that would exceed their lifetimes — The Holcomb and Hoke Company — initially a brush manufacturer in Sullivan, Indiana. This dynamic business-duo continually looked ahead for new, specialized products with one winning formula in mind: select goods whose market is too small to interest big companies, yet large enough to grow H&H.
The purchase of an Indianapolis game manufacturer prompted Holcomb & Hoke’s relocation to Indy in 1903, when they expanded their product line to include a bowling game called “Box Ball.” By 1913, H&H were looking to expand once again, this time to improve upon a popular snack: popcorn.
The H&H “Butter-Kist” popcorn machines delivered a delicious, crunchy, fully-popped and uniformly buttered snack that became hugely popular with patrons at theaters, dime stores, hotels and street vendors. Merchants embraced the 65- to 70-percent profit margin, and the crowd that gathered to watch the (usually electrical) mechanism cook, sort and butter the corn right in front of their eyes. Deluxe poppers featured peanut roasters, mechanical vendors, and containers for displaying candy, chewing gum and mints.
Over 21 years of production, H&H sold more than $20 million worth of Butter-Kist popcorn machines and peanut toasters. During this time, the company was a prolific advertiser — to both consumers and merchants. Profit on the sale of popcorn could be quite good in its day, especially for something that required only one operator. The company continually promoted potential profit figures and offered an “easy payment plan.” Indeed, innovative marketing was largely responsible for Holcomb & Hoke’s success — eventually making it the number one manufacturer of popcorn machines and peanut roasters in the world.
As with many non-necessities, sales of popcorn machines lagged with the onset of the Great Depression. Manufacture ceased in 1934 but, ever innovative, H&H went on to produce other products such as lunch wagons, sandwich warmers (Butter-Kistwich machines), ice tanks, glass meat cases, coal furnace feeders (the Fire tender), WWII tank arms (the piece that joined the track rollers to the tank), back wing hinges for Korean War fighters, and the accordion-folding door (the FolDoor).
Not all H&H product ideas were profitable. Company flops included: the Electramuse (an early juke box), the self-regulating aluminum cooker (a very large and expensive crockpot), a vending machine for buttermilk, a line of attic fans, the “Two-Minute Jelly” (a fruit juice and pectin premix), and the “Pollenizer” (essentially an eight-foot-wide brush on two large wagon wheels that did more or less the same thing bees do).
Despite an occasional marketing fumble, the Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company remained in continuous operation at 1545 Van Buren Street in Indianapolis for over 100 years, finally closing its doors in 2009.
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Special thanks to the J.H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum in Holland, Ohio who own what can easily be called the definitive collection of H&H memorabilia. If you’re ever over that way, call ahead for a tour… because if you’re in Holland, Ohio… why would you not?
Did you, or perhaps any of your relatives, work for H&H?
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