Cotton candy is a treat found at nearly all carnivals, street fairs and even some movie theaters. It is sold at ballparks and swimming pools around the country and has become a definitive summer treat. The airy sugar snack has century-old roots dating back to the 15th century to Italian elite society.
Cotton Candy’s Early Days
At only a hundred years old, cotton candy is a relatively new sweet in its current form. But, did you know that an older form of cotton candy called “spun sugar” was popular with the 15th century Italian upper class? This sweet treat was only available to the wealthy elite as sugar wasn’t as wildly abundant at the time. The process of creating spun sugar involved procuring the key luxury ingredient, melting it and then drizzling the melted sugar over sheets or objects to create various artistic forms.
Spun sugar was typically made as an edible table centerpiece and accompanied by various fruits. In fact, there were chefs that were renowned to be spun sugar “sculptors,” and they would spend hours creating works of art from the liquid sugar.
This was the original form that cotton candy took and it was made this way until the turn of the 20th century, when the electric cotton candy machine was invented.
Spun Sugar Gets a Modern Twist
The patent for an electric sugar spinning machine was granted in 1897 to two men from Nashville, TN named William Morrison and John C. Wharton. They debuted their new invention at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and again at the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The duo called the expertly spun sugar “fairy floss” and charged 25 cents per box. That may not sound like much until you factor in inflation which means that each box cost roughly $5.50.
Regardless of the hefty price tag, Morrison and Wharton sold over 68,000 boxes of fairy floss during the six month course of the fair, earning around $17,000, or $370,000 in today’s terms.
The floss was such a hit that only a year later, a candy store picked up a machine and started selling the fairy floss for five to ten cents a serving. The sugar treat was referred to as spun sugar or fairy floss until the early 1920s, when the new name of “cotton candy” started to become the more popular term due to its similar appearance to cotton.
Cotton Candy Science
Since the invention of modern day cotton candy, very little has changed with regards to the floss machine. There have been improvements made to increase reliability, but the concept remains the same.
Flavored sugar, called flossugar, is placed in the center of the cotton candy machine in a spinning head. This head heats the sugar up to 300°F, when it begins to melt. When the head gets spinning, centrifugal force pushes the melted sugar out of the center and through a mesh screen around the spinning head. This breaks the sugar up into the fine pieces of floss that is customary today.
The fine threads are caught in a bowl that encompassed the spinning head. The bowl can be either metal or plastic and will typically have some sort of netting or thick wire mesh to catch and hold the flying strands of sugar more easily.
For nearly half a century, cotton candy machines were noisy and unreliable until the 1940s, when a company known as Gold Medal invented a cotton candy machine with a spring base which made the machine more reliable and more efficient.
That last innovation to the cotton candy industry was in the early 1970s, when an automatic cotton candy machine was invented. This allowed the production of cotton candy to become so automatic that it could be found in stores all over the city long after all the fairs left town. The machine makes uniform loops of cotton candy and then automatically bags it in an air- and water-tight bag.
Despite the advance in technology, the biggest advances in cotton candy production have actually come in the form of colors and flavors. While the pink vanilla flavor is still the most popular, there are a wide variety of flossugar flavors and colors nowadays ranging from Sour Raspberry to Watermelon.
Making Cotton Candy
The technical aspect of spinning sugar into floss aside, making cotton candy is a snap. Choose between flossugar or flossine as your base ingredient, set it to heat and get the floss machine spinning.
The traditional method of vending cotton candy is on a paper cone. To get started rolling your candy floss onto the cone, wet the edges of the cone just a bit to get the spun sugar to stick initially. Then begin rolling the cone in the opposite direction and wrapping the floss around the cone until it is full. Make a quick swiping motion through the sheet of cotton candy when you are ready to end one cone and begin a new one.
From royal delicacy to carnival treat, cotton candy has changed quite a bit over the centuries. In most American memories, this treat is now known for its fluffy, airy texture, whimsical colors and melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
Illustrations by the talented Roman Martinez for FSW