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MomsRetro.com  Food History: Cotton Candy

The History of Cotton Candy;
Heavenly Clouds of Spun Sugar

Cotton candy is a confection made of spun sugar, served in great wispy clouds wrapped around a paper holder.  The warm, sticky mass melts in your mouth and usually makes a mess of your face too. 

Most Americans remember reaching up to grab a huge, cottony swirl of heaven from mom or dad at the circus or an amusement park.  It brings back memories of hot summer days, crunchy sweet candy you can only eat with your hands and of course, pink sticky faces and clothes.

Cotton candy is also known by such enchanting names as spun sugar or fairy floss.  As early as the 1400's, European chefs were spinning extravagant desserts out of sugar.  Though, the little hands reaching out for this confection likely wore gold rings and mom and dad warned the children about getting their robes or crowns sticky. 

The sugar strands in these magical desserts were thicker and more like glass than today's cottony spun sugar.  The candy could be formed into golden webs, eggs, bird's nests, castles and other fanciful creations.


Up until the late 1800's, spinning sugar was a very labor intensive, difficult and somewhat dangerous undertaking.  Loaf sugar, made of cane or beets was used, as granulated sugar wasn't invented until after World War One. 

Sugar, water and other secret ingredients were boiled in large pots until reaching the correct temperature and consistency.  When the molten concoction was ready, the confectioner had a few moments to pull it out of the bowl with a fork or whisk and then fling the hot mixture through the air.  The strands would quickly cool and solidify in the air. 

The cook had to be careful of burns and early recipes warn to use plenty of oil on the skin to keep the blistering hot liquid from sticking.  Cooks were advised to use only the best cane sugar 'lest failure should occur' and to use copper bowls for best results.

Today's modern cotton candy machines work using the same concept except a spinner sends the sugar floating onto a current of air and the sweet, cottony threads are collected inside a bowl.  Sugar and coloring is heated in a small, spinning container which sits in the middle of a large metal drum.  The spinner has tiny holes which send the liquid sugar flying out in strands.  Once the strands come in contact with the air, they become solid and forms threads on the sides of the bowl. 

Sugar has improved since colonial times too.  Special sugars are now formulated to create longer strands, giving the candy a fluffier texture.  The warm candy is usually swirled onto a cardboard tube or stick.  In the 1970's new machines were invented to produce cotton candy on a large scale.  These machines produce a long continuous mass of cotton candy which is then cut into rectangles.  It can now be found in stores packed in plastic bags.

Several American inventors are credited with cooking up the first modern cotton candy machines around the turn of the last century.  The first patent was given to John C. Wharton and William Morris for their cotton candy machine in 1899, or 1897 depending on your sources.  The two partners debuted their new 'fairy floss' at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 where it became a success. 

Another American, Thomas Patton patented a slightly different cotton candy machine a year later and teamed up with the Ringling Bros. Circus where the sticky confection is still served today.

In 'the trade' cotton candy is simply known as 'floss'.  Machine operators will tell you there is an art to collecting and forming the warm product just right.

The most popular color for cotton candy is pink, followed by blue.  Other colors like yellow, purple and green are also sometimes seen.  Almost all cotton candy has food coloring added.  Without color, it would be white or light tan.  Purists like to eat their cotton candy plain, but it can also be flavored.  Popular flavors include bubble gum and ice cream.

Adventurous cooks, indulgent parents and cotton candy addicts can now make their own fluffy, spun dessert creations at home.  Small machines (which resemble toys more than a cooking tool) can be found for under $100.  Bigger, more reliable cotton candy machines can cost up to $1,000, although you'll still need to add your own circus. 

America even has a day dedicated to this sweet, ethereal creation, so don't forget to celebrate National Cotton Candy Day on December 7.



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