In 1897 dentist William Morrison wanted to boost his income. He joined forces with candy maker John Wharton to invent a machine that made what was originally called spun sugar.
Spun sugar had been around since the fifteenth century. Chefs melted sugar and used a fork to flick strands over a broom stick. It took a lot of time. Sugar was expensive – too costly for the masses. According to Harry Sherrin in HistoryHit, “spun sugar was by no means a popular treat.” Henry III of France was “no doubt well aware of this” when he went to Venice and was served “a platter of more than one thousand different items of spun sugar.”
Centuries later, Tennessee partners Dr. Morrison and Wharton designed a simple machine that made spun sugar available to everyone. Sugar was put in a center bowl and melted until it turned into a liquid. Using compressed air, the liquid sugar was forced through tiny holes into a spinning bowl that cooled it into long strands. The result was a melt-in-your-mouth white confection they called Fairy Floss. Fairy Floss was an instant hit at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. It cost 25 cents a serving – half the price of a ticket to the fair. The partners sold 68,000 fairy flosses for a total of $17,000 – equivalent to half a million dollars today!
St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904
Competition jumped in when the 17-year fairy floss patent expired. In 1921 another dentist, Joseph Lascaux of New Orleans designed a similar machine and called it cotton candy. Dr. Lascaux thought it looked like the fluffy white cotton crops from his home state of Louisiana. The dentist never hit it big but the name stuck. Australia is only country in the world that still calls it fairy floss.
The machines were unreliable, often breaking down. In 1949 a company called Gold Medal Products introduced the first factory-made cotton candy machine. It had a spring-loaded base that improved reliability and increased output. By the 1970s the machine was fully automated and could make a lot more cotton candy. Gold Medal still makes cotton candy machines – second only to the largest producer, Tootsie Roll.
The magic of fairy floss/cotton candy had captured the world’s imagination.
Today cotton candy still looks like the original fairy floss. Flavors and colors have changed – you can get anything from the traditional white, pink, or blue to green dill pickle and purple gingerbread. There’s also watermelon lime, ghost pepper, and black licorice. One Las Vegas restaurant rolled ice cream and sprinkles in cotton candy for a unique dessert. There’s cotton candy fudge, cotton candy s’mores, and cotton candy ice cream. You can also find a variety of toppings like crushed Oreos, chopped nuts, mini M&Ms, edible glitter . . . the list is endless.
Cotton candy has a lot of different names around the world. In the UK and New Zealand, it’s candy floss, China has dragon’s beard, France has Papa’s Beard, The Netherlands has sugar spider, and in Greece, my favorite, it’s old ladies’ hair.
You can get your fill at carnivals, fairs, ballparks, and circuses. It may be fresh or bagged in a cone or plastic cup. People can purchase or rent a cotton candy machine for backyard barbecues, block parties, and local carnivals. Amazon offers hundreds of choices from small over-the-counter models to colorful nostalgic carnival carts. There are cotton candy tee shirts, clothes brands, and designs. Polar Playground boasts cotton candy art from unicorns to Baby Yoda.
The facts say it all. Cotton candy is thinner than a strand of human hair. Guinness World Records reports that the largest cotton candy was 4,593 feet long and weighed over 660 pounds – quite a mouthful. Perhaps most important, a typical cotton candy serving has less sugar and calories than a can of soda and it’s better for your teeth than a jelly apple.
Whether fairy floss, cotton candy, or old ladies’ hair, it’s here to stay.