The year of our Lord 1498 was a heady time: the explorer Vasco da Gama arrived at Kozhikode, India; Savonarola was executed by the Pope; Christopher Columbus discovered Trinidad; Michelangelo was commissioned to carve the Pietà; and — last but not least — the emperor of China patented the toothbrush.
Whether and how you cleaned your teeth before this time depended principally on sense and sensibility. The primary form of dental hygiene was the mighty toothstick (forefather of our toothpick); to wit, a twig. One chewed one end of the stick until it became soft and pliable and then used the chewed end to brush one’s teeth, much as a 6-year-old boy does when bored at summer camp. If you had a knife, of course, you could carve the other end of the stick to a point and pick at the larger objects between your teeth (see, e.g., toothpick). And if your particular twig happened to come from a citrus tree or rosemary bush that was a plus, as you got a little organic tooth cleanser thrown into the mix for good measure (think Tom’s before Tom’s was Tom’s).
Indeed, the toothstick, or toothpick, was the gold standard for thousands of years. If you are a student of history, you will recall that some ancient Egyptian tombs included toothpicks as burial artifacts to allow the pharaohs to continue their tooth-cleansing in the Kingdom of the Dead. And a number of Greek texts refer to people using toothpicks (οδοντογλυφίς); if you were wealthy, you could impress your friends and influence people by flaunting a brass or silver toothpick with a gaudy handle. Other common methods of tooth cleansing prior to 1498 included wiping them with a damp cloth, or simply wiping them with one’s sleeve.
Into this miasma of complacency — seemingly out of nowhere — rode Chinese ingenuity. Take the stiff, coarse bristles from a hog’s neck, set them into a piece of bone, and — voilà! — suddenly those hard to reach crevices were child’s play. News of the invention eventually reached Europe (some apocrypha even attribute the toothbrush’s introduction in Italy to Marco Polo, though given his birth in 1295 these tales are of dubious provenance); however, the toothbrush didn’t become an immediate hit with the public, probably because the local horsehair commonly used by the toothbrush-making guild simply flopped on the end of the brush like a wet ponytail.
Fast-forward some 200 years and cross the Channel into England, where we find the earliest identified use of the word “toothbrush” in the autobiography of Anthony Wood, who wrote in 1690 that he had bought a toothbrush off one J. Barret. A short time thereafter a bright Englishman named William Addis started importing coarse boar bristles from Siberia and northern China, and his mass-produced toothbrushes made him a wealthy man. As the market picked up, invention followed invention: Meyer Rhein patented a three-row toothbrush in 1844; celluloid plastic brush handles appeared during World War I; and Dr. West’s Miracle Tuft Toothbrush appeared in 1938, with bristles made of DuPont’s new product, nylon.
Technical innovation in the toothbrush field continued apace in the 1930s with the Swiss invention of the electric toothbrush, but the advent of WWII interrupted technological development, which stagnated until General Electric introduced a rechargeable cordless toothbrush in 1961 — where our story, regretfully, must pause to catch its breath and floss before bedtime. Stay tuned for part II, which includes the dramatic conclusion of the toothbrush wars, a nasty patent dispute, and other esoteric toothbrush trivia.