Early Annals of Science Chefdom: Cotton Candy


A lonely cotton candy vendor in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Cotton candy has been with us since at least the Middle Ages, when Persian and Turkish versions were available at great expense, made by a labor-intensive method. The invention of a cotton-candy machine by Nashville candy makers John C. Wharton and William Morrison in 1897 changed all that and made candy cotton — also known as “fairy floss” and “fluffy stuff” — readily available to a mass audience.

The machine consisted of a metal basin with heating elements underneath into which sugar was poured. When the contraption was turned on, the sugar melted, the basin spun, and the resultant liquefied sugar was drawn through an array of small holes. As the sugar exited the holes, it would solidify into thin strands, which would be wound around a cardboard tube by the operator.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite its volume, a large wad of cotton candy only contains a tablespoon of sugar, or about 100 calories, making it a rather low-calorie treat. Nearly all cotton candy contains artficial coloring, and some also has artificial flavoring. Some say the first popularization of cotton candy occurred at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where nearly 70,000 servings were sold.

A company called Gold Medal Products of Cincinnati, Ohio, is the only one still manufacturing cotton candy machines. Their particular innovation was mounting the machines on a series of springs, which kept the devices from breaking down so often.

December 7 has been declared National Cotton Candy Day. Try to enjoy some before the summer disappears — but be sure to brush your teeth afterward.