by Morgan Byrn
In 1904, people were introduced to Fairy Floss at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. What is Fairy Floss? That was the original name for cotton candy. So how does all of this relate to Tennessee history? Let us dive into the sweet, sugary past of cotton candy.
William Morrison and John C. Wharton lived in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1800’s. Mr. Morrison was a dentist, and Mr. Wharton was a candy maker. Can you believe that a dentist and a candy maker were friends? Both men were inventors. They took their love of candy and created a candy machine. The bowl heated sugar as it spun. The heat and the spinning created fluffy sugar strands. They called their tasty creation Fairy Floss. In 1897, the men patented their candy machine. Not long after, they sold their machine to the Electric Candy Machine Company in Nashville.
Patent for the improvements to the original machine. Patent from 1904. Courtesy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Around this time, large fairs or expositions were a popular way to show off new inventions. In 1897, Nashville held the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Almost two million people attended the event to celebrate Tennessee turning 100 (really 101). The World’s Fair was a much bigger event! First, it lasted for eight months. It covered 1,200 acres (that is about 1,500 football fields). There were 1,500 buildings and even a waterway you could use for travel! There were people traveling from all over the world to see its exhibits. It was predicted that thirty million people might visit the World’s Fair. That’s a lot of people that may buy Fairy Floss.
A picture of the Parthenon which was built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum collection.
A box of fairy floss would cost a visitor $0.25. That seems cheap today! But in 1904, it cost $0.50 to attend the fair. They were asking half the ticket price for their candy! Fairy Floss was sold in small wooden boxes. The boxes were decorated with pictures of the fair. During the fair 68,655 boxes were sold. They made $17,163.75 in sales. The machine even won a big prize at the fair. Fairy Floss was a success!
The Palace of Electricity where the Fairy Floss machine was on display at the World’s Fair. Courtesy of the St. Louis Library Digital Collection.
Advertisement for a Fairy Floss Machine by The Electric Candy Machine Company in the 1907 Tennessee State Fair Program. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
After the World’s Fair, the Electric Candy Machine Company sold machines to people and companies all over the country. Now everyone could enjoy Fairy Floss. It became a hugely popular treat at fairs and is now sold in stores. Although it was invented here in Tennessee, the name cotton candy was not. In the 1920’s, a dentist in Louisiana invented the name. Don’t forget to grab a bag of cotton candy and chow down on December 7th for National Cotton Candy Day!
A little girl enjoys her cotton candy. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum collection.
World’s Fair: A large fair that is created to showcase the achievements of countries and their people around the world.
Inventor: A person who produces something, like a device, for the first time.
Patent: A legal document that says the inventor is the only person that can sell or make their invention for a set amount of time.
Tennessee Centennial Exposition: In 1897, Tennessee celebrated its 100th birthday by building a fair that would showcase the great things. Things like industry, art, transportation, and agriculture were highlighted.
Predicted: To make an educated guess about what will happen in the future.
Where was the World’s Fair in 1904?
Where was the cotton candy machine invented?
Why was Dr. Morrison’s job so unusual for someone who invented a kind of candy?
Which came first: The World’s Fair or the Tennessee Centennial Exposition?
How much money did the Electric Candy Machine Company make selling cotton candy at the World’s Fair?
Why do you think that Cotton Candy, or Fairy Floss, was so popular when it came out?
Create your own Fairy Floss box.
What new food would you invent? What ingredients would be in it? How much would you charge for it? What would your slogan be? Write about it and then draw a picture of your invention.
Watch a short video on the history of cotton candy:
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
5.05-Examine the contributions and impact of inventors on American society, including: Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington Carver, and Thomas Edison.
Morgan Byrn is the Family Programs Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.