What is a Cotton Candy Machine?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A cotton candy machine uses sugar, a hot plate, centrifugal force and tiny holes to create a popular treat at carnivals and fairs. The operator of the machine pours pure sugar and food coloring (often pink) into a centralized hotplate. As the sugar melts, centrifugal force from this spinning hotplate forces threads of sugar through a mesh screen. The hot sugar threads cool down in the open air and are flung against the round outside wall of the machine. The operator then twirls a paper cone around the perimeter, causing individual sugar threads to stick to the cone and to each other. The result is a large pile of spun sugar originally called 'Fairy Floss', but more commonly known as cotton candy in the United States.

Woman baking cookies
Woman baking cookies

The basic idea behind cotton candy is a centuries-old cooking method called 'spun sugar'. As sugar melted in a small container, professional chefs would gather some of the hot syrup on a fork and fling it across a larger container. When the heated sugar cooled, light threads would form and chefs bundled them together to form a dessert.

The first commercial cotton candy machine was invented in 1897 by two candy makers from Tennessee named William Morrison and John C. Wharton. Their invention used an electric heating element to melt crystallized sugar and a motor to force the threads through a mesh. Instead of using paper cones, the first batches of Fairy Floss were served in wooden boxes. The treat itself was very expensive, selling for an exorbitant 25 cents US a box. Admission to the 1904 World's Fair itself was only 50 cents US. Despite the high costs, the new treat proved to be very popular. The most difficult part of the operation, however, was maintaining some very cantankerous machinery.

Improvements to the basic cotton candy machine came in 1949. The Gold Medal company developed a much more reliable mechanism for heating and distributing the sugar. Virtually every cotton candy machine in use today at fairs, carnivals and charity events are manufactured by Gold Medal Products of Cincinnati, Ohio. Some rental stores can supply a cotton candy machine and special sugar for use at schools and fundraising events. In recent years, a home version of these machines has also become available through selected specialty stores.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I rarely eat cotton candy these days, but the machines still fascinate me. I was always one of those little kids who wanted to see how things were made, and the first time I saw cotton candy actually being made, I was charmed and enthralled. I got my candy, then stood and watched the operator for I don't know how long as he made up more.

If I'm at a festival where a cotton candy machine is working, I'm still prone to stop and watch as the vendor takes a cardboard cone, dips it into the vat and winds the fluffy strands around the cone. Some things will always make me feel like a little kid.

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