Many products we know and love today have surprising origin stories. The inventor of Play-Doh created the putty substance to be a wallpaper cleaner. In the 1920s, Lysol was marketed to women as a vaginal douche and contraceptive. And in a somewhat ironic twist, the cotton candy machine was apparently invented by … a dentist.
To be clear, various forms of spun sugar date back at least 500 years, and cotton-candy-like treats have appeared in different parts of the world throughout history. In Sweets: A History of Candy, confectionary historian Tim Richardson notes that early-medieval Venetians boiled sugar syrup, used forks to flick off long strands and then draped them over wooden broom handles. The resulting product was firmer and crunchier than the cotton candy that’s widespread today.
The process was quite costly and labor-intensive, so this treat was rare and reserved for the wealthy. While visiting Venice in the late 16th century, Henri III of France enjoyed a banquet featuring 1,286 items (including the tablecloth) made of spun sugar.
It was the work of Tennessee dentist William J. Morrison that helped bring to the masses the fluffy machine-spun cotton candy that is popular in the U.S. today. After graduating from the University of Tennessee Dental College in 1890, he explored his seemingly incompatible interests in tooth health and candy.
Morrison became president of the Tennessee State Dental Association in 1894, and in 1897 he teamed up with Nashville confectioner John C. Wharton to create a machine that would cut down on the manual labor required to make spun sugar treats. The pair patented what they called their electric “candy machine,” which melted and spun sugar to produce the gauzy treat popular at carnivals today.
Morrison and Wharton introduced their machine and its sugary product ― which they fittingly called “fairy floss” ― to a wide audience in 1904 at the seven-month Louisiana Purchase Exposition, aka the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Fairy floss was a hit. The duo reportedly packaged it in boxes that cost 25 cents and sold more than 68,000 units.
The name “cotton candy” entered the scene in the 1920s, but Australians still call it “fairy floss.” And “candy floss” is the preferred term in the U.K., New Zealand and other countries.
In France it’s called “la barbe à papa,” which means “papa’s beard,” and in Italy it’s “zucchero filato,” or “sugar thread.” There’s also “spookasem” (“ghost breath”) in Afrikaans, and in other languages like Hindi and Greek, the term for cotton candy more or less translates to “old woman’s hair.”
Cotton candy has been compared to many sugary treats around the world, though they tend to have slightly different ingredients and preparation processes ― like stretching instead of spinning. Examples include dragon’s beard candy (which legend dates back to China’s Han dynasty), pashmak (widely known as “Persian cotton candy”) and pişmaniye in Turkey.
Although Morrison and Wharton are widely credited as the inventors of the cotton candy machine, some have pointed to other figures in confectionary history.
A man named Thomas Patton may have been the first to create a cotton candy machine with his gas-powered invention. He received a patent in 1901. Another young dentist named Josef Lascaux is credited with popularizing the name “cotton candy.” Lascaux, who was from New Orleans, apparently invented a similar candy machine in 1921.
But it was Gold Medal Products Co. that successfully manufactured a more streamlined model in the late 1940s. The company still sells cotton candy machines.