Cotton candy’s earliest origins date back to 15th century Italy. Here, in specialty bakeries off cobblestoned streets, sugar syrup would be boiled in a pan and “flicked out” with forks to create decorative, wispy strands. Due to the laborious process and the high price of its only ingredient, this “spun sugar” was only produced in small quantities, exclusively for the uber-wealthy.
For 300 years, the confection stayed in fashion—but only among elite circles. Ornately-spun Easter eggs and “webs of gold and silver” were rare delicacies for high society Europeans. Italians were particularly skilled at sugar spinning; as one historian describes, Venetians “moulded it into a fantastic tableaux of animals, mythic figures, buildings, birds, and pastoral scenes.” When Henri III of France visited Venice in the late 1500s, he was treated to a fanciful banquet at which 1,286 items —including the tablecloth —were spun of sugar. For the average citizen though, the treat remained widely inaccessible.
Centuries later, in 1897, a 37-year-old dentist from Tennessee decided the sugary goods should be enjoyed by everyone.
Born in Nashville in 1860, James Morrison’s passions were strangely conflicting. He excelled in dentistry school (by 1894, he was named President of the Tennessee State Dental Association), but was also a confection enthusiast with a penchant for culinary advancement. By the mid-1890s, he patented several devices — one which extracted oils from cottonseed and converted them to lard, and another which chemically purified Nashville’s drinking water.
But Morrison’s biggest breakthrough came in 1897, when he paired with John C. Wharton, an old pal and fellow confectioner. Together, the two designed and co-patented what they called the “electric candy machine.” Utilizing centrifugal force, the device rapidly spun and melted sugar through through small holes until it was fluffy and nearly 70% air. They called the new treat “fairy floss,” formed the “Electric Candy Company,” and spent several years perfecting the process before debuting it to the public.