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What is Cotton Candy?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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It is hard to imagine circuses, carnivals, and fairs without the ubiquitous pink clouds of spun sugar called cotton candy. When cotton candy made its debut around the beginning of the twentieth century, it became something of an overnight sensation, growing in popularity from the start. Since then, people young and old around the world have enjoyed the fluffy pink confection.

A predecessor of cotton candy existed as early as the fourteenth century. Skilled cooks would bring sugar to its melting point, then drizzle fine threads of it over greased forms. When it hardened, this spun sugar would form a delicate web, which would be served as an elegant sweet or used as part of a more elaborate dessert. Spun-sugar Easter eggs made using this technique were particularly prized in Europe.

The origins of cotton candy as we know it today are somewhat ambiguous, with four individuals being credited with its development. In 1897, William Morrison and John C. Wharton, candy makers from Tennessee, invented a machine that spun molten sugar into fine filaments. Their machine used centrifugal force to throw the melted sugar through a screen. The spun sugar was then lightly twisted around a paper cone. Morrison and Wharton introduced their confection on a grand scale at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. They called their creation "Fairy Floss" and sold it for twenty-five cents a box. Although this was no small sum at the time, people were apparently willing to pay for the sugary novelty. Morrison and Wharton sold over 68,000 boxes at the fair.

In 1900, Thomas Patton received a separate patent for his way of producing cotton candy, which used a gas-fired rotating disk to stream the molten sugar through a fork. A fourth man, a dentist named Lascaux from Louisiana, also receives some credit for coming up with and distributing the sugary snack from his practice, though he never held a patent or a trademark. Presumably, the benefits he enjoyed were largely related to an increase in business of a dental nature.

In its most basic state, cotton candy is deceptively simple. It has only one essential ingredient—sugar—although coloring and flavoring are usually added. Traditionally, cotton candy was pink and tasted like sugar. Modern tastes have brought about such flavor innovations as sour apple, lime, blue raspberry, banana, bubblegum, and even “cake batter.” With variations in flavor come the expected variations in color, and it is not uncommon to see vendors with bags and cones of cotton candy in blue, purple, yellow, and green.

In 1920, Fairy Floss was given the name “cotton candy.” Although this is what it is most commonly known as in the United States, in Great Britain it is called candy floss, and Australians have retained the term “fairy floss.”

Cotton candy must be kept perfectly dry—it cannot tolerate any moisture at all. In contact with any source of dampness, it will immediately begin to dissolve into a sticky mass of liquefied sugar. Although it is composed of mostly sugar, a good-sized cone of the fluffy stuff contains less sugar than a can of regular soda and has about 100 calories.

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Discussion Comments
By anon925986 — On Jan 15, 2014

TunaLine, I've seen cotton candy machine rentals go either way. The special sugar mix and the cones can be purchased separately, but they're not always easy to find. It seems like most rental places will provide you with a sleeve of cones and at least one box of the mix along with a quick lesson on how to make a finished cone. It's not as easy as it looks, and it can be hot and messy after a while. I'd recommend having enough volunteers on hand to give each other frequent breaks, and wear protective or old clothing. During operation, it's usually just a matter of keeping the center well filled with enough sugar mix to make good cones.

By TunaLine — On Oct 16, 2010

I was wondering, when you rent a cotton candy cart for a school fair or similar event, do they give you the cotton candy supplies and bags with it, or do you have to buy your own?

My school is holding a spring fair, and I'm in charge of refreshments, so I thought it would be nice to get a cotton candy cart, but I wasn't sure about the auxiliary expenses.

Can anybody tell me how this works?

By gregg1956 — On Oct 16, 2010

I've always felt that popcorn and cotton candy just go so well together. Something about the combination of the saltiness of the popcorn with the intense sweetness of the cotton candy just mixes so well.

I've always wondered how cotton candy makers don't weigh a ton -- I know if I did that for a living I'd eat more than I sold!

By rallenwriter — On Oct 16, 2010

I have a great nostalgia for cotton candy, but perhaps not for the reason you'd expect.

When my boyfriend and I were first dating in Hong Kong, we went to see the enormous Buddha at the Po Lin monastery. That was really cool, but the thing I remember the most from the date was the cotton candy we got from a cotton candy cart in the little touristy village nearby.

This cotton candy was the largest cotton candy or candy floss I had ever, ever seen. It was seriously about twice the side of my head.

It was really cheap though, less than an American quarter, so I have no idea how they made a profit, what with all the cotton candy supplies they must have bought. I mean, the cotton candy sugar alone must have cost a fortune.

But anyway, that's my nostalgia with cotton candy -- unfortunately not fair-related, but a great memory all the same!

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