Spun City: The Invention of the Cotton Candy Machine



One recent evening, I had some rare access to the remote control for our television and landed on a show called “101 Fast Foods That Changed the World.” I was intrigued. Not limited to drive-thru cuisine, the list included Tootsie Rolls, MREs and protein bars. Also on the list (albeit, rather close to the bottom): cotton candy. I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard “Nashville.” Huh?

Yes, Nashville. Though spun sugar has been around for hundreds of years, the electric cotton candy machine was invented in 1897 by a Nashville dentist, William Morrison, with the help of his candymaking partner, John C. Wharton. The two patented the machine two years later and then made a big splash at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. They sold their “fairy floss” for a quarter, which was quite expensive at the time; you could get about two dozen eggs for that price.

Though the Nashville candymaker/dentist made a lot of money at the World’s Far, it was yet another dentist, Joseph Lascaux from New Orleans, who popularized the name, “cotton candy.” He invented a similar machine in 1921, called his product cotton candy and sold it through his dental practice. In 1951, a company called Gold Medal Products began manufacturing a reliable and automated machine that made it cotton candy more affordable, accessible and, of course, widely available.

Nowadays, you can rent commercial cotton candy machines (not advised on a windy day, as I know from experience) and even buy a small one for home use. As for Dr. Morrison, though he didn’t make it big as a cotton candy mogul, he worked on other inventions, including a process for extracting oils from cotton seed for lard substitute and a chemical process to purify the public drinking water for Nashville. He later became president of the Tennessee State Dental Association and was known for civic involvement.

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