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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.

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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.

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Butterkist machines replaced kerosene-heated street carts and were considered an improvement in hygienic dispensing as the snack was delivered to the patron, “untouched by hands.”

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Sporting genuine mechanical beauty, Butter-Kist machines looked more like fine furniture than vendor carts.

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.

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Glass portions of the peanut roasters and popcorn machines were a clever ploy to attract crowds. The aroma called them near and the “spectacle” of popping corn or roasting peanuts held the attention of the curious. Those were simpler days.

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. 

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Savvy marketing never mentioned the price of the machine.

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).

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Replica of a Butter-Kist food truck, now located at the J.H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum in Ohio. H&H commissioned 20 such vehicles.

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. 

Can’t get enough of these historic Indy-preneurs? Check out:

Indy’s Wonder Years
The American Box Ball Company
J.I. Holcomb Manufacturing

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?
Share your memories in the comment box below.

2 responses to “Sunday Adverts: Nuts for Holcomb and Hoke”

  1. Joseph Barker says:

    I worked here from 1981 to 1988.

  2. Ernest H. Henninger says:

    Dear Lisa Lorentz, thanks so much for your interest in Holcomb and Hoke. My Dad, Herman Henninger worked at H & H from the 20’s until at least the late 1960’s as a draftsman. I have so many memories: Dad bringing home popcorn at 4;30 in the afternoon, endless work on the Foldoor, the Firetender in out basement….. I have two large glossy photographs, one shows my Dad at a workbench (or drawing table?) at the factory, the other a group photo of the entire workforce – from the late 30’s or early 40’s. Interesting that there isn’t a single black or Hispanic man among them all. There were at least a few women on the office staff. Dad especially admired Fred Hoke. We lived at 1117 East Southern Avenue – took Dad only a few minutes to drive to work. My sister, Mildred, and I went to school at Eleanor Skillen School #34 on Wade Avenue (I have a picture of our graduation class, 1947.
    Let me know if you have questions!

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