The Long and Illustrious History of Cotton Candy

By: Robert Thomson

Cotton candy - what would childhood be without it? It's sticky, sweet airiness brings memories of summer days spent under the circus tent, or meandering through the country fair's exhibits. Let's not forget nights sent on the carnival's Ferris wheel, cotton candy in one hand while the other grips the car's bar for dear life.

Cotton candy goes back a long way, though, from its appearance at fairs and carnivals. It wasn't the light, airy, wispy stuff we know today, but spun sugar was all the rage in the days of knights and their fair damsels. Since sugar was rare and expensive, it was a treat reserved only for the very rich, so few folks ever got to experience it. Medieval cooks first spun sugar on forks to create webs and strands to decorate cakes and other sweets. Confectioners would make castles and dragons and fairy tale creatures from it to the delight of the rich and famous of the day. Lords and ladies would marvel over the spun sugar creations, while the lowly servants could only look on with longing.

Later, cookbooks shared the techniques involved in spinning sugar. Most involved swirling a fork into the sticky cooked sugary syrup and drawing it out at just the right time to create the right thickness of sugar thread. These threads were then spun or wound around an upturned bowl. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, spun sugar was again the rage in Europe, with confectioners creating sugar Easter eggs and covering other candies such as chocolate in intricate webs of spun sugar. This was pretty much how cotton candy (called spun sugar) existed until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

No one can really say for sure who "invented" cotton candy as we know it today. Four separate individuals - Thomas Patton, Josef Delarose Lascaux, John C. Wharton, and William Morrison - all had a hand in it, it would seem.

In 1899, John Wharton and William Morrison were granted a patent for a machine that melted and spun the sugar. The pair of Nashville, TN candy makers then got really creative. They introduced their "fairy floss" and its electronic maker at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, otherwise known as the St. Louis World's Fair, in 1904, and the tradition of cotton candy and fairs was born. They sold nearly 69,000 boxes of the stuff at 25 cents each. It was one of the Fair's most expensive treats, earning the two men over $17,000, nearly half a million dollars in today's world.

A year after Wharton and Morrison received their machine's patent, William Patton was awarded his own patent for a different candy floss machine. While Morrison and Wharton used centrifugal force to spin the melted sugar through small holes to form the strands, Patton used a flat disk or plate heated from underneath with a gas fire to melt the sugar. He then spun the candy threads upwards with a fork. He unveiled his machine at Ringley Brothers circus, and found that he too, had a hit on his hands. Cotton candy and the circus have been synonymous ever since.

Lastly, Joseph Lascaux received his patent much later than the other three, in 1921. A dentist in New Orleans, Louisiana, he introduced the sweet treat to his patients. (Perhaps the most ingenious way to ensure his business would continue?) While his machine also used centrifugal force and electricity, it's what's in the name that counts. His patent was for a "cotton candy" producing device. New Orleans citizens claim Lascaux "invented" the name "cotton candy," the name that stuck in the United States. Perhaps the old dentist was onto something, after all.

In 1949, the "modern" cotton candy machine came into being, with a patent granted to Gold Medal Products. It had a spring loaded base, and was much more dependable. Most cotton candy makers today are mere improvements of the Gold Medal machine.

Around 1950, cotton candy went upscale. The prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in New York City added it to their menu for special occasion dinners like birthdays and anniversaries. The Manhattan version of the sweet sticky treat is served in a martini glass, and can come color coordinated to the guest. Other fancy eateries around the country, inspired by Four Seasons, no doubt, also offer cotton candy on their dessert menus, too.

Sometime in the 1970's cotton candy became mass-produced with the advent of a machine that melts the sugar, spins it into floss and bags it. Now, cotton candy can be purchased in nearly every grocery store, without a circus tent or carnival midway in sight.

New Orleans may lay claim to the name cotton candy, but in other countries, the confection goes by other names. In Australia, it is still known as fairy floss, the name given it way back in 1904 at the World's Fair. Great Britain's children call it candy floss. In France, it is Barbe a papa, meaning "Papa's beard." In India and Greece, you ask for a treat of "old lady's hair."

Whether you ask for spun sugar, cotton candy, fairy floss or old lady's hair, the simple sweet treat of melted sugar, with a bit of food coloring added in, is till as popular today as it was way back in the days of lords and ladies. Loyal customers can even purchase their own "residential" cotton candy machines, ensuring that the sticky goodness can be enjoyed year round at home. And you don't need a circus tent, a martini glass or even a fork to do so!

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