Archive for Monday, July 22, 2013

Toothbrush: A small item with a big history

July 22, 2013

It is one of the first items we reach for in the morning and one of the last we use every night. It would be hard to imagine life without it. Unfortunately most of us really give it very little thought and certainly none about its history. How many have guessed that I’m talking about the simple, but necessary, toothbrush.

We just expect the toothbrush to be there and ready for teeth cleaning duty. It has a fascinating history. The first instrument used for cleaning teeth was the toothpick. The Greeks and Romans used wood from the mastic tree. Other early societies used animal quills, though some quills were thought to create bad breath. Early Muslims used toothpicks for dental health as well as keeping the devil away.

The forerunner to the modern toothbrush was probably invented by the ancient Chinese. Some cultures used bark to rub on teeth to keep them clean and improve breath.

There are those who credit William Addis with developing the western version of the toothbrush in 1780. It seems that Addis was in Newgate Prison charged with inciting a riot. Bored with prison he salvaged bones from meals and bored tiny holes. A guard supplied him with bristles which he stuffed into the holes and the modern toothbrush was born. When he got out of prison, he started a successful business manufacturing and selling toothbrushes.

The first American patent for a toothbrush was by H. N. Wadsworth on Nov. 7, 1857. The mass production of toothbrushes in the United States started in 1885. It didn’t take long before sharp businessmen saw a great opportunity, and the toothbrush was soon a big seller and part of almost every household.

The toothbrush as we know it today traces its origins to 1938 when plastic fiber was first used. About that time, there was greater emphasis placed on oral hygiene in schools. The importance of oral hygiene was also important to the military during World War II. Now I suspect every household in the USA has numerous tooth brushes.

Back in the days when I was in school, we had an annual lesson on proper dental hygiene. I still remember parts of the movie that we saw. Certainly back in the late 1940s and 50s, dental hygiene wasn’t as good as it is today.

Earlier in the 20th century, there was another big advancement when the electric tooth brush was developed. It was first conceived by Dr. Philippe Guy Wook in Switzerland. Apparently the original idea was for the electric toothbrush to be used by those with braces or by handicapped persons. However, it soon became popular with the general population.

E. R. Squibb marketed the first electric toothbrush in the United States in 1959. General Electric made a major improvement in electric toothbrushes when they marketed a cordless model with rechargeable batteries. I looked but couldn’t find the percentage of Americans who use the electric model, but I guess the number would be growing. I did find one source that said there was no difference in quality of brushing; it all depended on the effort and method of the user.

I am a “hybrid” brusher. Before I had my stroke, I was a manual brush man. When my right arm took a temporary leave of absence, I soon learned that using an electric model was easier and, I really believe, better. However, I sometimes revert back to my old manual toothbrush. I guess I’m a creature of habit, when I use the manual brush I utilize my right hand which is now back in service. Since I learned to use the electric unit left-handed, I still always use the left hand with electric version.

Even though it is a common household item, the toothbrush has an interesting history.


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