The modern toothbrush, a high-tech instrument made of plastic and nylon bristles, started out as not much more than a humble toothpick, according to dental historians.
Toothpicks made of wood, thorn, metal, or porcupine quills have been around for at least three thousand years. "Examples have been found in Etruscan and Egyptian tombs; some of the metal ones were very ornate symbols of wealth and status," says George Millar of Cromwell of Connecticut, a toothbrush historian who began collecting brushes while developing his own model six years ago. His collection of almost 300 brushes includes versions from every part of the world; some date from the late 1800s.
"Oral hygiene was valued by Roman and Greek civilizations; even slaves had access to chew sticks made from the wood of trees and shrubs such as licorice, lucern, mallow root, myrtle, dog-wood, or the tender shoots of the peach," says Mr. Millar. "The end of each stick is unraveled by chewing, separating the fibers which scrape the teeth. These sticks still are used extensively in some parts of the world today."
In Arabia and India, chew sticks or siwaks have a religious ritual significance. Prayers are made while brushing; 15 minutes of brushing is said to be the equivalent of 70 prayers. The siwak is mentioned in early literature from Mesopotamia, believed by many to be the cradle of civilization.
Virtually every civilization has at some time produced powders, salves or washes to freshen breath and ward off oral disease. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, compounded a tooth powder that included burnt hare's head and mouse parts. Roman literature is replete with recipes for dentifrices and instructions for their use. The Persian physician Rhazes (850-932 AD) was one of the first to recommend filing cavities.
Abulcasis (1050-1122 AD), an Arabian surgeon, illustrates and describes dental scrapers for the first time in "De Chirurgia," a work that remained a standard surgical text book for centuries. It shows 14 scrapers and describes when they should be used:
"Sometimes on the surface of the teeth, both inside and outside, are deposited rough ugly looking scales, black, green and yellow; this corruption is communicated to the gums, and the teeth are in process of time denuded. Lay the patient's head on your lap and scrape the teeth and molars."
In Europe, Giovanni Archoli, an Italian physician who died in 1484, wrote 10 rules for dental hygiene including cleansing the teeth after meals. He was one of the first to mention the connection between food and dental decay.
By the 15th century, English barber-surgeons performed dental procedures. They scraped teeth with various metal instruments and rubbed them with a stick dipped in "aqua fortis," a solution of nitric acid. The acid certainly made teeth white--before it ate the enamel away and caused teeth to die.
The toothbrush as we know it--one with a handle and bristles--was invented by the Chinese around 1500. "In 1780, William Addis of Clerkenwell, England, is believed to have made the first 'modern' toothbrush," says Mr. Millar. "The brush featured natural bristles set in a bone handle. The bristles were drawn into holes bored into the head and secured by wires."
During the 1800s, toothbrushes were made by hand. The thigh bones of cattle were considered superior for use as handles because they were the only ones strong enough to withstand pressure, especially when brushes became wet during use. Bristles came from the necks and shoulders of swine, especially those in the colder climates of Siberia and China; they were considered stronger. Badger bristles were avoided because it was believed they were too soft.
One of the first illustrations of a toothbrush accompanied the 1818 tract "Le Dentiste des Dames (The Women's Dentist)" by Parisian practitioner Joseph LeMaire, who portrayed the prevailing attitude of toothbrushes as effeminate. A fashion among American men was not to clean their teeth at all, but to have the service performed periodically by their barbers when they made their routine visit for a haircut.
"By 1840, toothbrushes were being manufactured in France, Germany and England" says Mr. Millar. "The use of new production methods and cheap labor enabled ornate brushes to be made with decorated handles and innumerable small knots of bristles. The art of manufacturing brushes was taken by the French to Japan where cheap brushes were made for poorer people."
In the 1890s, early studies began to link tooth decay with oral hygiene and Americans took to the brush to fight bacteria. One early slogan: "A Clean Tooth Never Decays."
The Florence Manufacturing Company, one of the first to produce toothbrushes in the US, began operating in the mid-1880s. In 1885, the company began manufacturing a popular model called the Pro-phy-lac-tic Brush, and in 1924, the company became the first to box their brushes to prevent contamination.
"The first nylon toothbrushes were made in 1938, developed by researchers at EI DuPont de Nemours," says Mr. Millar. "The use of nylon filaments gained widespread acceptance because of the wars and other world disturbances that interfered with the importation of good natural bristles. The combination of nylon bristles with plastic handles is still used by manufacturers."
By 1990, electric brushes are believed to have captured roughly 20 to 25 percent of the market. By 1994, toothbrushes that operate on principles of ultrasound became available to the public. From 1990 to 1995, several dozen new toothbrushes flooded the American toothbrush market, featuring all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors and functions. At the current rate of expansion, the toothbrush industry will surpass the $1 billion mark by the year 2000.
In 1994, the National Museum of Dentistry was founded in Baltimore. For the first time, curators will collect and preserve the very symbol of American oral hygiene -- the humble toothbrush.
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