Value Fictions: Part I

September 18, 2007

The Life and Times of the Toothbrush

In the Beginning…

The toothbrush originated around 3500 BC. References to ancient toothpicks or “chewingsticks” used to maintain oral hygiene has been found in ancient Greek and Roman literature, Mesopotamians writings, and Egyptian tombs. Romans valued good teeth as a sign of vigor and good health. In China in 1600 BC, these toothpicks became pencil size chew sticks or natural toothbrushes with one end that had a pointed pick used to clean food from between teeth, and one end that became a softened brush when chewed into. Other forms of these toothpicks were made from porcupine quills, birth feathers, or animal bones. These are the precedences of the miswak toothbrushes that were made from twigs of the Salvadora persica tree. The Salvadora persica tree, also known as the toothbrush tree, is made of a fiber that as been scientifically proven to prevent tooth decay and maintain healthy, clean teeth. The tree has healing and antiseptic qualities that are still used in miswaks today throughout Muslim communities. Brushes made from twigs or roots of lentiskwood or myrtle were also a preferred method of cleaning teeth in the 5th century (the age of Hippocrates), as both sources contained an odor that gave users pleasant breathe.

Tooth Meets Brush

Bristled toothbrushes were widely used throughout Europe and Asia by the early 1800s, but toothpicks were still being used as a sole means of cleaning teeth as well throughout the world. As they became more a part of everyday life of the 18th and 19th centuries, silver, copper, and gold toothpicks were being created as a reflection of art and symbol of social status. Although the toothbrush continued to evolve in modern society, toothpicks in the United States were the main tool for teeth cleaning through the early 1950s. In the United States, Bristle toothbrushes were added to oral hygiene methods of chewsticks and rags in the late 1700s, but they were not easily accepted by the public. Advertisements for American dentists contained illustrations of bristled toothbrushes to encourage people to use them. By the 19th century, bristled toothbrushes were superior to chewsticks. Today, approximately 10 million people in the Middle East and throughout the world still continue to use toothpicks as their main method for cleaning teeth.

The Toothbrush Comes Into Its Own

Dr. Meyer L. Rhein made the first patented toothbrush by hand in 1844, which was comprised of three rows of large tufts of serrated bristles. The Florence Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts collaborated with Dr. Rhein to manufacture and mass distribute the Pro-phy-lac-tic brush in the United States. It was H.N. Wadsworth who publicized the toothbrush in America, as he was the first to receive the toothbrush patent in 1857. It was the era of World War I that significantly changed the way toothbrushes were made. Because of the nutritional needs of troops, bones that were previously used for toothbrush handles were being collected by the soup industry to use for food rations during the war, due to the nutritional value that bones contained. This gave way to the usage of celluloid toothbrush handles. Celluloid was a plastic material that was poured into plastic handle molds, and then shaped to create a functional handle. It was not until the 1920s when the most effective method of attaching bristles was developed for this type of handle: holes were drilled into the head of the brush, small bunches of bristles were then forced into the holes, and secured with a staple. This method is continues to be used for many toothbrushes today.

Shockingly enough, most Americans did not brush their teeth until World War II when soldier’s returned home with the habit as part of their daily routine enforced in the Army. A campaign at the time told people to brush their teeth so they can win the war, not only supported the troops but encouraged people to incorporate the habit into their lives.
It was around this time in 1938 that nylons filaments replaced the use of boars or horse hairs for bristles, since the roadblock out of Chung-King, China prevented the exportation of animal hairs. Nylon was a better source for bristles since the shape could be varied in diameter, improving performance, and reduced the cost of production.


The Toothbrush Today

In 1939, the electric toothbrush was first introduced in Switzerland as a way to get better teeth cleaning results while simulating more brushing action. It was not until 1987 that the electric toothbrush was introduced for home usage. A study performed with electric toothbrushes from General Electric and Broxodont have shown that although electric toothbrushes seem to simulate more brushing action, in regular brushing they are no more effective than manual toothbrushes.

Today, there is no question that teeth brushing is a regular part of the daily routine of modern society. Commercials and advertisements for toothbrushes are prominently marketed to promote healthy gums, glowing white teeth, and stop bad breathe and gingivitis. Oral-B leads with the most dominant toothbrush products on the market, but there are over 3,000 patents of toothbrushes available. There are toothbrushes that play music while you brush – Tooth Tunes, brushes with two heads, and a brush that can tell you how many times you have cleaned a particular section of teeth – The Oral-B Triumph 9100 with SmartGuide. Of all the variety of toothbrushes available, the most agreed on quality of the toothbrush that continues to be the most important in all manufacturers, is that the handle must be able to reach the most difficult to reach teeth.

electric toothbrush



One comment

  1. You mean, that ISN’T the way it happened? LOL! 🙂

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