The History of Cotton Candy
PUBLISHED: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The History of Cotton Candy

For many of us, cotton candy inspires memories—the county fairs and seaside boardwalks that dot our memories of summertime in youth, concession stands and the beating hot sun of a baseball game in July, and so on. In other words, we tend to think about cotton candy in the context of our own, personal history more than the cultural and culinary history of humanity. The truth is that people have been spinning sugar into delicate, gossamer nests for longer than you might think—though the significance and ease of preparation have changed substantially over time.

A Cotton Candy World Tour

The history of light, stringy candy probably begins in China during the Han dynasty, which lasted from roughly 202 BC to 220 AD (with a short break from 9-23 AD for the Xing dynasty). Legend holds that a chef in the emperor’s court entertained him by stretching a rice flour and sugar mixture repeatedly, eventually winding up with a nest of sugary fibers that allegedly reminded the emperor of a dragon’s wispy beard. The candy was quickly adopted as a delicacy by the country’s upper classes, but the labor-intensive process of stretching sugar by hand put it outside the realm of affordability for most “commoners.” Then, when the Communist Party of China began to take root, it banned most iconography and traditions that had come from the Han dynasty—dragon’s beard candy was almost lost to history.

Meanwhile, by the year 1430, the concept of pulled/spun sugar had either spread to or been independently discovered by Turks and Bosnians. Their variation, called pişmaniye, is made with butter-roasted flour and is generally “looser” in appearance than dragon’s beard or cotton candy. What’s important to note for our purposes is that pişmaniye was traditionally made in Turkish homes. By the 15th century, the forerunners of cotton candy were no longer limited to the privileged few. This presaged the arrival of the cotton candy that we know today, which is very much a dish for the masses.

The Cotton Candy Revolution

By the late 1890s, an enterprising American dentist had come up with his own spin on gossamer sugar candy. William Morrison and his partner John Wharton are credited with inventing the first machine-spun cotton candy, which they called Fairly Floss, and introducing it to a broad American audience via the 1904 World’s Fair. It was popular enough that by 1905, Albert Robinson had submitted patents for his own take on a cotton candy machine that incorporated a motor-driven bowl and internal heating element. This was, for all intents and purposes, the cotton candy machine that we know and love today. In the last 115 years the changes have been incremental and minute enough that Robinson would probably have no trouble recognizing his design in countless homes and businesses across the globe.

While the history of cotton candy may be more complex than we can entirely sum up here, making it at home isn’t. At Home Theater Express, our customer service representatives are available to answer your questions online at ht-express.com and by phone at 1-800-774-0893.