Sweet Tooth: The Unlikely Origin of Cotton Candy

Cotton Candy Machine

by Graham Hoppe

The story of cotton candy begins, ironically, with a dentist.

William James Morrison was one of Tennessee’s most successful dentists at the turn of the last century. He had excelled in dental school at the University of Tennessee and quickly became one of the youngest presidents in the history of the state dental association.

In many ways Morrison typified Nashville’s turn-of-the-century fascination with arts and letters. As his city was styling itself as the Athens of the South, he followed suit by pursuing science, politics, and culture along with his medical practice. He was proud to call William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson friends. Morrison advocated for literacy and wrote a popular series of children’s stories, Charley Circus’ Adventures, to advance that cause.

An avid inventor, Morrison created the process which led to Nashville’s first chemical water treatment plant. He also worked on an early lard substitute that he extracted from cottonseed. But none of these things would make him famous. Instead, his lasting legacy would be cotton candy, which he invented with Charles Wharton in 1897.

Morrison was inspired by spun sugar, an Italian confection made by teasing strands out of boiling sugar before it turns to caramel. You might have seen it still used as a decorative topping on fancy desserts like the French croque-en-bouche.

But while it is related, spun sugar is not exactly cotton candy. Spun sugar lacks the lighter than air quality that makes cotton candy so distinctive. Morrison sought finer threads of sugar that would create clouds rather than nests. More critically, he wanted something that could be produced in high volume, quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Cotton Candy PatentThe solution was centrifugal force. Morrison and Wharton, another Nashville candy enthusiast, described the process in their 1897 patent:

“A rotating vessel containing candy or melted sugar causes the said candy or melted sugar to form into masses of thread-like or silk-like filaments by the centrifugal force due to the rotation of the vessel” (US Patent #618428 A).

Morrison and Wharton knew that their device created a new sensation, an ethereal snack that literally melted in the mouth with a blast of (almost) overwhelming sweetness. Hoping to capitalize on this fantastical sensation, the Nashville confectioners dubbed their new product Fairy Floss. They decided that they would introduce their invention to the world at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

In a stroke of good fortune, that particular World’s Fair proved a definitive moment in America’s twentieth century cuisine. Reportedly, hot dogs, hamburgers, iced tea, peanut butter, and puffed rice were all introduced to mass audiences at the fair. A number of iconic brands also debuted, including Dr. Pepper, Cracker Jack and Popsicles. The fair arguably helped establish the way many Americans would eat during the next hundred years, and the Nashville dentist’s sugar machine sat right at the center of the action.

Fair goers were infatuated with Fairy Floss. Morrison and Wharton sold almost 70,000 boxes of the stuff during the six months of the event and recorded a profit of $17,163.75, almost $450,000 in today’s currency. Morrison and Wharton’s machine took home the prize for “Novelty of Invention” and became a tremendous financial success for its inventors. In 1921 another southern dentist, Josef Lascaux of New Orleans, created an updated, but ultimately less successful version of the machine. Lascaux did have a lasting effect, though: on his patent he renamed the product Cotton Candy.

William Morrison died a wealthy man in 1926 in his home near Vanderbilt University. His many inventions had contributed to his financial success, but none more so than his Fairy Floss machine. Cotton candy remains a staple of fairs, carnivals, and sporting events where happy patrons are still enticed by barely-there clouds of sugar. And dentists everywhere still reap the benefits.

Graham Hoppe lives and works in Raleigh, NC. He writes about culture and history. He wrote his master’s thesis about Dollywood and is currently expanding it into a book. You can find more of his work at grahamhoppe.com.

Source material:

Christen, Arden J., DDS, and Joan A. Christen. “William J. Morrison (1860-1926.” Journal of the History of Dentistry 53, no. 2 (July 2005): 51-56.