The Goo Goo Cluster celebrated its 100th anniversary with much deserved fanfare in 2012. Hot chicken is the star of its own festival in Nashville each year. Meat and three restaurants are Nashville lunchtime staples almost every day.
And yet, one of Nashville’s most consequential culinary breakthroughs has slipped by the wayside, drifting away to the point that many longtime residents aren’t even aware it was invented here.
You know it as cotton candy, but in the 1890s, a Nashville dentist — yes, a dentist — and a candymaker partnered to invent a fluffy, sugary treat they called "fairy floss."
They sold their invention to a company founded by one of Nashville’s most famous businessmen, who took the cotton candy machines public and made the dessert ubiquitous at ball games and fairs across the world.
And now a prominent historian is working to restore cotton candy to its rightful place as a celebrated Nashville creation. David Ewing has conducted research about the development and mass marketing that made cotton candy an unmitigated international success. He wants to install a historical marker in front of the downtown building where the invention was perfected.
“I think a lot of people don’t know it was invented here,” Ewing said. “And it’s a shame, because it’s one of the most important inventions, in terms of its popularity around the world, in Nashville history.”
A dentist and a candymaker team up to make history
The cotton candy machine was the brainchild of dentist William James Morrison and candymaker Charles Wharton. Morrison was a prodigious inventor who developed a number of patents, and he later became president of the Tennessee Dental Association. According to a 1903 story in The Nashville American, which was a predecessor publication to The Nashville Tennessean, Theo Zoeller helped perfect the electrical machinery.
The original patent was for 1897, but their goal was to unveil the breakthrough at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Ewing said it bears remembering that the World’s Fair was a truly important international event.
“Back then the World’s Fair was a great place to debut things,” Ewing said. “For example, in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Fair, the Ferris wheel made its debut. The St. Louis fair was where they debuted cotton candy to America and the world, and back then millions and millions of people attended.”
Although Morrison and Wharton invented the machine — a ceramic bowl with mixing device at its center, which heated and spun the granulated sugar into fluffy strands of cotton candy — they soon sold the patent to another Nashville company. The Electric Candy Machine Company bought the patent prior to the World’s Fair in 1904 and marketed the invention to the rest of the world.
And the company found immediate success. General Manager James Demoville was quoted in The Tennessean predicting that 200 cotton candy machines would sell at least 8 million packages at the fair.
The machine itself won the prestigious award for “most novel device in the way of electrical machinery.” After the fair, the company began leasing the machines for $200 per year, or $25 a month, according to Tennessean reporting at the time.
“The genius of cotton candy was if you bought a machine you could sell a box of cotton candy for a quarter,” Ewing said. “That’s high profit margin. The ingredients of cotton candy were inexpensive, basically sugar. And the concept of cotton candy was that you’d be able to sell thousands of boxes at 25 cents each.”
Nashville company popularized machine around the world
The success of the Electric Candy Company is where the cotton candy comes full circle to Nashville’s current food scene.
The Electric Candy Company was founded by one of Nashville’s most influential businessmen, Guilford Dudley Sr., a co-founder of the Life and Casualty Insurance Company. Dudley’s brother Richard Houston Dudley, the former Nashville mayor, owned a hardware store called Gray & Dudley, which was located on 2nd Avenue North near the Metro courthouse.
Today that building houses the 21c hotel, and its restaurant is called Gray & Dudley. Completely coincidental to its connection to the creation of cotton candy, 21c restaurants across the country serve bowls of cotton candy with meals.
And so, cotton candy is regularly served in a Nashville restaurant housed in a building linked to the businessman who sold and leased the machines around the world.
Gray and Dudley chef Levon Wallace said patrons have a childlike reaction when their dish of cotton candy is served at the end of the meal. Wallace spun a batch of the blue treat to demonstrate how the machine works prior to a dinnertime shift in January.
“The flagship 21c property in Louisville is where cotton candy was presented at the end of the meal as the check-presenter,” Wallace said. “I mean really, who doesn’t have room for cotton candy? It’s almost impossible to not have a childlike, celebratory vibe.
“That’s the whole message. We take ourselves seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Wallace wasn’t aware Nashville was the birthplace of cotton candy until connecting with Ewing in recent months. But Wallace said he’d like to see cotton candy properly honored, somehow, in Nashville.
Ewing, who has purchased an original fairy floss machine, is pushing for the city to create a historic marker in front of the building where the original invention took place, believed to be at the corner of 3rd Avenue North and Church Street.
In order to break up a 10-year backlog of constructing historical markers, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry put $187,500 into the budget. Ewing said the cotton candy historical marker is at the top of his priority list.
“These are stories that should be told, and I’m looking forward to seeing what community members and the Metro Historical Commission come up with as we work to add historical markers throughout the city,” Barry said in mid-January.
Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn agreed with Ewing and Wallace that the city should ponder ways to honor cotton candy’s creation here, so that the story of the dentist, candymaker and businessmen who brought the invention to the world doesn’t get lost over time.
“Cotton candy has become synonymous with kids and county fairs, and is a staple of our childhood,” Rayburn said. “The fact it originated in Nashville is a tribute to our entrepreneurial heritage.
“I think the result of David’s research is some folks within our industry will work to find a way to pay tribute to the Dudleys and the creation they have brought to children throughout the world.”
Photo archivist Ricky Rogers contributed. Reach Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 and email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.
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Self-rising flour by Ford Flour Company
Goo Goo Cluster
First published cookbook written by an African-American, Rufus Estes