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How a Dentist Popularized Cotton Candy

How a Dentist Popularized Cotton Candy

Stashed in: Stories, Candy!, Abominations, Freakonomics

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Note that this is not Joseph Wharton, namesake of the University of Pennsylvania business school.

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.

At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (more popularly known as the 1904 World’s Fair), the duo introduced their product, selling it in small wooden boxes for twenty-five cents each (about $6 today) -- nearly half the admission price to the fair. Despite its high price, the candy floss was a smash success. Over 184 days, Morrison and Wharton sold 68,655 boxes, grossing $17,163.75 ($438,344 in 2014 dollars). 

The World Fair, which housed 35,000 hungry attendees and had previously been the birthplace of hot dogs, peanut butter, ice cream cones and other legendary treats, honored fairy floss’s success by holding a special “confectioner’s day."

Following the fair, a 1905 advertisement in The New York Times touted the new “Wonderful Candy Machine” as a major breakthrough.

Still a good story!

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