A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who invented cotton candy?

February 7, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Who invented cotton candy? I've looked every place I can think of to get an answer. I know what its made of I have been making it for a long time now... I owe a great deal to fairy floss as they call it in England but I don't know who invented it first. I have wrote the company (Gold Metal) who makes most of the cotton candy machines but they never answered I guess they don't know either.

The original monikker for spun sugar was "fairy floss," the Brits call it "candy floss," and we started calling it "cotton candy" in the 1920s.

I call it too sugary and unpalatable.

A quick look in the Dictionary of American Food and Drink doesn't help. The DAFD says "cotton candy" originated in 1900 at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when vendor Thomas Patton began experimenting with the well-known process of boiling sugar to a caramelized state, then forming long threads of it with a fork. Patton's genius, according to the entry, was to heat the sugar on a gas-fired rotating plate, creating a cottony floss.

But this "spun" explanation is pure flack bunk, starting with the fact that the Ringling Brothers show didn't merge with Barnum & Bailey until 1919.

According to Gourmet magazine (February 2000), the real story takes place in 1897, when William Morrison and John C. Wharton, Tennessee candymakers from Nashville, invented the world's first electric machine that allowed crystallized sugar to be poured onto a heated spinning plate, then pushed by centrifugal force through a series of tiny holes.

They proudly took their "Fairy Floss" to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (otherwise known as the St. Louis World's Fair) and sold the product in chipped-wood boxes. Though they sold each box for a whopping 25 cents (half of the fair admission price), they sold 68,655 boxes. (That same fair also introduced the world's first ice-cream cone.)

Early spun-sugar machines were extremely unreliable. They rattled and broke down constantly. The introduction of spring bases in 1949 proved to be a breakthrough. The company that introduced that innovation, Gold Medal Products of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactures almost 100 percent of all cotton-candy machines in the country today.

Cotton candy has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts. Though it does only have about 100 calories and less sugar than a can of regular soda, it's a pure sugar cash machine. Some cotton candy vendors claim (in an Internet ad) that "in as little as 2 square feet of floor or counter space, you can place this easy-to use cash generator that will continually bring in AT LEAST 90 cents profit on every dollar sold!" Wonder if any dentists have stock in Gold Medal Products.

An interesting sidenote: one web search on "cotton candy" turned up an adult fan club for the spun-sugar-haired Hanson boys and their pop sound.

Seems like my definition of cotton candy works here, too.

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