A Dentist’s Dream – Or Nightmare? The Man Who Created Cotton Candy

Cotton candy is one of the most beloved sugary iconic American treats…but what feels so good on the lips might not be so good for the teeth. If they aren’t brushed away, the sugar granules can be any dental patient’s nightmare – but ironically, it is also a dentist’s dream. Not in the sense that it increases the need for dentists (although it does contribute to the need for teeth cleaning), but because it was a dentist who invented it and gave so many children a beloved carnival favorite.

Celebrating 100 years this year, cotton candy was born in Nashville, Tennessee. Invented in the 1890s, a dentist was the one who originally realized that you could puff sugar granules into fluff; then he made it available to the public at large with cotton candy supplies. It quickly became a staple at fairs and carnivals both across the nation and abroad. Not just popular in the US, cotton candy – originally just a small novelty – has made its way around the globe. Since not many people give Nashville the proper kudos for the invention, a local historian has decided to bring its fame back where it started.

The cotton candy machine was invented by a dentist named William James Morrison and a well-established candy connoisseur named Charles Wharton. Morrison had many inventions and patents under his belt, and he later became the president of the Tennessee Dental Association. The story goes that in 1903, the cotton candy machine was perfected. Although the original patent for the machine dates to 1897, the two collaborators decided to keep it under wraps until the World’s Fair in 1903, which was quite likely one of the biggest international events that America has ever hosted.

The World’s Fair quickly became known as the best way to introduce new products. In a manner similar to social media, the word of mouth that came from things entering the marketplace at the World’s Fair quickly took off around the world. Although it was born in Tennessee, cotton candy was not spread to the public at large until the St. Louis fair, where millions of people got to sample a taste of the cottony goodness.

The machine originally worked by using a ceramic bowl with a mixing mechanism in the center. When the operator poured sugar into the bowl, fluffy strands of candy began to form. The machine was quickly sold to a Nashville company who could produce the cotton candy to sell. The Electric Candy Machine Company purchased the patent from the dentist and began selling it to the world in 1904, and then they started to market the candy machine to the rest of America and all over the globe.

The demand was instantaneous, with more than 200 candy machines being ordered; estimates were that up to eight million or more packages would be sold at the World’s Fair. After the fair ended and cotton candy’s reputation was established, the company began to lease their machines for $25 a month – which was a sizable amount at the time. The reason that so many people wanted to get into selling cotton candy was due to the high profit margin, with very little initial investment or marketing needed. The cotton candy basically sold itself.

The original building where the cotton candy machine was created now houses the 21C hotel. The restaurant on the premises is named Gray & Dudley. By coincidence only – since the origins of cotton candy have been lost for quite a while – the restaurant has a signature cotton candy bowl that comes standard with their meals.

Although it seems to completely contrast with dental health, cotton candy was created by a dentist out of Tennessee. The full details surrounding its spread around the globe, and continuing reputation as a signature in fairs and carnivals everywhere, are just coming to light. Who would have ever guessed that such a sugary treat was the brainchild of a dental professional?