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.