The Unlikely Story of the Dentist Who Invented Cotton Candy

The Unlikely Story of the Dentist Who Invented Cotton Candy

Harry Sherrin

31 Mar 2022
A vendor rolling cotton candy in a candy floss machine.
Image Credit: Sappasit /

Cotton candy is undoubtedly a fairground favourite, adored by sweet-toothed circus goers and theme park revellers around the globe. But who first came up with the ingenious idea of turning sugar into a luminous, sticky cloud?

Well, people have been eating spun sugar for centuries, melting and shaping it into strands and nests not entirely dissimilar to cotton candy. But it wasn’t until William J. Morrison and John C. Wharton created the first ‘fairy floss’ machine in 1897 that the sweet treat became available to the masses.

The unlikely duo, comprising a dentist and sweetmaker, patented a device that could throw out strands of sugar quicker and easier than ever before. Within a few decades, cotton candy was beloved the world over.

Here’s the history of cotton candy.

The origins of spun sugar

Long before machine-made cotton candy came along, there was spun sugar. Back in 15th-century Italy, for example, chefs are known to have melted huge pans of sugar and then spun it using a method involving a fork to flick strands of it over a broom handle. This process created crunchy twigs and nests of sugar not too dissimilar to the cotton candy we eat today.

Given the cost of sugar in early modern Europe, spun sugar was by no means a popular treat: it was a reserve of royals and the ultra-rich. Henry III of France was no doubt aware of this fact when, on a trip to Venice, he was presented with a platter of more than 1,000 different items of spun sugar.

Close-up of a Chinese man making traditional handmade dragon’s beard candy in the town of Anchang, China.

Image Credit: Teow Cek Chuan /

Cotton candy also bears a resemblance to other sweet treats from around the globe. For example, ‘dragon’s beard candy’, which is essentially sugar vermicelli, has been eaten in China for centuries. There are also similar dishes, such as the Turkish dish pişmaniye.

Yet these precursors to modern cotton candy possess slight differences – in shape, texture and ingredients – to the fairground favourite. They’re also more laborious to produce than machine-made cotton candy. And that’s where William J. Morrison comes into the story.

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William Morrison

Morrison graduated as a dentist in Tennessee in 1890, but rather than steering clear of sugar, given his profession, he started exploring ways to make spun sugar in a short space of time.

After some investigating, Morrison enlisted the help of a Tennessee confectioner, John C. Wharton, to make a prototype cotton candy machine.

In 1897, the unlikely duo of dentist and sweetmaker completed their first, functioning cotton candy machine. It worked by melting sugar crystals in a central bowl, forcing the liquid sugar through a wire screen using compressed air and then spinning the rapidly cooling strands of liquid sugar into a nest using a rotating drum. Morrison and Wharton patented their machine shortly after.

The ‘fairy floss’ craze

An aerial view of the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, where William Morrison and John C. Wharton first marketed their ‘fairy floss’ en masse.

Image Credit: Missouri History Museum via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

With their cotton candy machine designed and patented, all Morrison and Wharton needed was to build up a customer base. They found it in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

The duo sold their product, which they named ‘fairy floss’, to the exposition’s throngs of visitors at 25 cents per box. It was a roaring success, and they ultimately sold more than 60,000 portions. So began the start of the ‘fair floss’ craze in America.

Decades later, in 1940, Gold Metal Products Co. developed a new cotton candy machine that could pump out the fluffy clouds even faster than Morrison and Wharton’s model.

A global treat

Somewhere along the way, ‘fairy floss’ became popularly known as ‘cotton candy’ in America, but Australians still tend to call it ‘fairy floss’. Britain and New Zealand, meanwhile, meet halfway and generally use the term ‘candy floss’.

Other nations have been more creative with their terminology. Like ‘candy floss’, the Afrikaans word for the treat, spookasem, is fairly fantastical and essentially translates to ‘ghost breath’. But the French name for cotton candy, la barbe à papa, is decidedly less magical, translating to ‘dad’s beard’.

A couple eating cotton candy at an amusement park on Coney Island, New York, in the 1970s.

Image Credit: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo

Ultimately, the many different names for cotton candy used around the world are just a testament to the food’s global popularity.

Before Morrison and Wharton’s invention, spun sugar was a reserve of the wealthy and a time-consuming treat to make. But their ingenious device made cotton candy a staple of funfairs, theme parks and circuses the world over.

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Harry Sherrin