Most people think the origin of cotton candy (also known as spun sugar" "fairy floss" or "candy floss") is a simple documented fact. It's not. There are several stories recounting the invention of cotton candy. All are interesting. None are definitive. Most accounts credit the invention of cotton candy to enterprising American businessmen at the turn of the 20th century. The 1904 Louisiana Exposition in St. Louis is often cited as the place where cotton candy was introduction to the American people.
The truth? Spun sugar was known long before this time. Mid-18th century master confectioners in Europe and America hand crafted spun sugar nests as Easter decorations and webs of silver and gold spun sugar for elaborate dessert presentations. At that time, spun sugar was an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor and was not generally available to the average person. How was spun sugar made before the invention of modern machines?
"To spin a Silver Web for covering Sweetmeats
Take a quarter of a pound of treble-refined sugar in one lump, and set it before a moderate fire on the middle of a silver salver or pewter plate. Set it a little aslant, and when it begins to run like clear water to the edge of the plate or salver, have ready a tin cover or china bowl set on a still, with the mouth downward close to your sugar that it may not cool by carrying too far. Then take a clean knife and take up as much of the syrup as the point will hold, and a fine thread will come from the point, which you must draw as quicky as possible backwards and forwards and also around the mould, as long as it will spin from the knife. Be very careful you do not drop the syrup on the web, if you do it will spoil it. Then dip your knife into the syrup again and take up more, and so keep spinning till your sugar is done or your web is thick enough. Be sure you do not let the knife touch the lump on the plate that is not melted, it will make it brittle and not spin at all. If your sugar is spent before your web is done put fresh sugar on a plate or salver, and not spin from the same plate again. If you don't want the web to cover the sweetmeats immediately, set it in a deep pewter from getting to it, and set it before the fire, it requires to be kept warm or it will fall. When your dinner or supper is dished, have ready a plate or dish of the size of your web filled with different coloured sweetmeats, and set your web over it. It is pretty for a middle, where the dishes are few, or corner where the number is large." ---The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, with an introduction by Roy Shipperbottom [Southover Press:East Sussex UK] 1996 (p. 92)
[NOTE: this book also has instructions for a gold web and to make a Dessert of Spun Sugar.]
On sugar spinning
The Complete Confectioner, Pastry Cook and Baker, J.M. Sanderson [Lippincott:Philadelphia] (p. 33+)
Spun Sugar for Ornamental Purposes
--Required: loaf sugar and half its weight in water. The best cane sugar should be used, as failure if almost sure with inferior sugar. This is to be put in a copper pan and brought to the boil, and freed from any scum thay may rise. When the surface begins to look bubbly it is nearly ready. To test it, dip a knife or the end of a steel in cold water, and be sure that it is cold, or a mistake may arise; then dip this in the boiling sugar, then in cold water again, and if it is brittle, and leaves the knife or steel, it is done; should it cling an be soft it must be boiled longer. When it is done, take small portions and pass it quickly to and fro to form threads over an oiled rolling pin held in the left hand. A fork is best to use to take up the sugar. Should this be intended for "draping" a vol-au-vent or other sweet, the pin should be moved, so that the sugar falls into position, and is not handled. To be explicit, as it leaves the pin it is wound round the sweet. There is considerable art in this operation, and it is quite likely that a number of failures will precede success; it is one of those branches of the cuisine that require a practical lesson. It is always well to rub a little oil on the hands and wrists in the case the sugar should splash them, and by standing on a stool, holding the left arm low, and moving the right hand high in the air, the work is facilitated."
---Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book, Lizzie Heritage [Cassell and Company:London] (p. 811)
Cotton candy, as fair food, began when W.J. Morrison and J.C. Wharton (Nashville, TN) patented the first electric machine for spinning sugar into edible threads in 1897. This machine produced cotton candy quickly in mass quantities. The machine was portable, the process was novel, the appeal was universal. Perfect fair food. Notes from the original patent:
To all whom it may concern; Be it known that we, William J. Morrison and John C. Wharton, citizens of the United States, residing at Nashville, in the County of Davidson and State of Tennessee, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Candy-Machines, of which the following is a specification. Our invention relates to improvements in candy-making, or, as commonly called, "candy-machines," in which a revolvable or rotating pan or vessel containing cand 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. The object of our invention is to obtain an edible product consisting of the said filaments of melted and "spun" sugar or candy."
---U.S. Patent #618,428 January 31, 1899. Application filed December 23, 1897.
Skuse's Complete Confectioner [London, undated, probably late 1890s/early 1900s] contains similar instructions on page 71:
Sugar Candy, Pink and White
Sugar candy is made in a variety of colours. The foreign, which is imported in large quantities, varying in shades between very dark brown and pale yellow, the prices charged for these qualities being very little above the sugar value, therefore unprofitable to make, but the pink and white candy is not so common, and generally command a renumerative figure, besides being attractive as a window decoration. The process is simple and interesting. Copper pans are sold by machinists for the purpose, but for small makers a rough coller or white metal pan will answer, so long as its sides are a little wider at the top than the bottom, in order that the crystalized sugar may fall out unbroken. Perforate the pan with small holes, about three inches apart, pass a thread through from one hole to another, so that the thread runs at equal distances throughout the centre of the pan, then stop up the holes from the outside with a thin coating of beeswax and resin to keep the syrup from running through. When the pan has been got ready, boil sufficient sugar to fill it, in the proportion of 7-lbs. sugar to 3 pints of water, to the degree of thread, or 230; then pour the contents into the pan and stand it on the drying room for three or four days; when the crystals are heavy enough, which you can tell by examining them, pour off the superfluous syrup; rinse the candy in lukewarm water and stand it in the drying room till dry. To make the pink, of course, colour the syrup, but be careful in tinging it very lightly. N.B.-When goods are undergoing the process of crystalizing, the vessel in which they are must not be disturbed."
In the dawning years of the 20th century cotton candy was also sold in sweet shops and department store candy counters. A Wanamaker's advertisement announcing the acquisition of "A Wonderful Candy Machine" ran in the New York Times February 11, 1905 (p.4). Price of their cotton candy? 5-10 cents, probably depending upon size.
Bruce Feiler's notes debunking the popular history of cotton candy:
"The Dictionary of American Food and Drink reports that the item [cotton candy] originated in 1900 at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus, when snack vendor Thomas Patton began experimenting with the long common process of boiling sugar to a caramelized state, then forming long threads of it with a fork. Patton's genious, according to the entry, was to heat the sugar on a gas-fired rotating plate, creating a cottony floss. The truth may be less romantic, but it is no less appealing. In 1897 William Morrison and John C. Wharton, candy makers in Nashville, invented the world's first electric machine that allowed crystallized sugar to be poured onto a heated spinning plate, then pushed by centrifugal force through a series of tiny holes. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly known as the St. Louis World's Fair, Morrison and Wharton sold the product, then known as "fairy floss," in chipped-wood [cardboard] boxes for 25 cents a serving. Though the price was half the admission of the fair itself, they sold 68,655 boxes..."
---"Spun Heaven," Bruce Feiler, Gourmet, February 2000 (p. 66+)
[NOTE: this is an excellent article. Ask your librarian to help you find a copy.]
Cotton candy: notes from the National Confectioners Association (includes how cotton candy is made today. If you need more details about the manufacturing process ask your librarian to help you find this book: How Products are Made, Jacqueline L. Longe, editor, Volume 4 [Gale:Detroit] 1999 (p. 157-161).