History Matters: Brushing Your Teeth

History Matters: Brushing Your Teeth

Innovation and trends that shaped your ancestors' lives: the toothbrush and toothpaste.

If your dentist has an extra-big grin on his face next time he fixes your smile, it’s probably because next year marks the 100th anniversary of fluoride toothpaste. Cecil Rudolf Lidgey filed a British patent Feb. 5, 1914, for “Improvements in or relating to dentifrices” that included “one or more fluorides among its constituents.”

Dental hygiene had already come a long way from the time, as recently as the 18th century, when the popular method of cleaning one’s teeth involved rubbing with a rag dipped in salt and soot. But it had a long way to go—many Americans would not regularly use a toothbrush until after soldiers returned from World War II having been taught to brush while in uniform. Indeed, during the first World War, the prevalence of rotting teeth among draftees led the United States to declare poor dental hygiene a matter of national security.

Ancient Babylonians and Egyptians cleaned their teeth with the frayed ends of twigs. But the first primitive brush for teeth originated in China. A traveling Japanese Zen master, Dogen Kigen, reported in 1223 seeing Chinese monks brush their teeth with horse-tail hairs attached to an ox-bone handle. Most sources date the first bristle toothbrush to 1498, invented in China using stiff hairs from the back of a hog’s neck stuck into a bamboo or bone handle. Few real improvements on this basic bristle design would be made for more than 400 years. Soon, European travelers to the Far East brought back toothbrushes. The word “toothbrush” first appeared in English in 1690, in the autobiography of Anthony Wood.

Credit for the first mass-produced toothbrush goes to Englishman William Addis, in 1780. As the story goes, Addis was in prison for having caused a riot. With plenty of time on his hands, the inventive inmate drilled small holes in an animal bone saved from a meal. He then inserted tufts of pig bristles he had obtained from a friendly guard. Addis glued the bristles in place to make the prototype of the toothbrush he’d begin manufacturing upon his release. The company Addis founded, Wisdom Toothbrushes, continues in business today.

George Washington’s toiletry kit contained a silver toothbrush and tongue scraper with a silver tooth powder case. Despite brushing his teeth daily—unusual for the time—he suffered from daily toothaches and  had just one natural tooth by his first term as president in 1789. The abrasive concoctions used for cleaning teeth likely exacerbated his problems: If people brushed their teeth at all back then, they typically used the same soap as for bathing, or “tooth powders” made of everything from shells to charcoal to burned bread.

In 1824, a dentist named Peabody introduced a “toothpaste” containing soap. Another dentist invented “Crème Dentifrice” in 1850. That formula was the basis for the first mass-produced toothpaste in jars, which Colgate marketed in the United States in the 1880s.

Although H.N. Wadsworth filed the first US patent for a toothbrush in 1857, American mass-production of toothbrushes didn’t begin until 1885. These brushes still relied on bone, wood or ivory for the handle, and animal bristles—Siberian boar hair—for the brush. Animal bristles tended to fall out, however, and were slow to dry, promoting the growth of bacteria. Your toothbrush might well be less hygienic than your teeth.

With advances in modern materials, celluloid began to replace bone handles in toothbrushes in the early 1900s. But the great leap forward for brushing was DuPont’s invention of nylon. The first toothbrush with nylon bristles, Doctor West’s Miracle Toothbrush, arrived in stores Feb. 24, 1938. Not only was it more hygienic than brushes made with animal hair, but also the nylon bristles were gentler on the inside of the mouth than sharp, spear-like hog bristles.

Toothpaste, which was first sold in collapsible lead tubes (inspired by the packaging of artists’ paints) in the 1890s, enjoyed its own scientific advances. In the 1940s, synthetic cleaners replaced ordinary soap. Despite the introduction of fluoride in 1914 (one source says a German firm sold fluoride toothpaste even earlier, in the 1890s), however, the American Dental Association was reluctant to get on board. Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble launched a research program in the 1940s, in conjunction with Indiana University, to develop a fluoride toothpaste that would garner ADA approval. The result was Crest, which went on the market in 1955 and earned the dental association’s endorsement in 1960.

A similar slow-motion saga brought the first electric toothbrush to store shelves. Work to develop an electric-powered toothbrush began in Switzerland at Broxo SA about 1939. Not until 1954, however, did Dr. Philippe Guy Woog produce an actual electric toothbrush. Initially, the goal wasn’t a mass-market product at all, but rather a device that would assist patients with impaired mobility to brush their teeth. A 1956 study, however, found that electric toothbrushes cleaned teeth better (or at least more reliably) than manual brushing, because they compensated for incorrect technique.

Squibb began selling the US’ first commercially available electric toothbrush, the Broxodent, in 1960. Although remarkably slim and easy to hold, the early models had to be plugged into a wall outlet, with a cord running out of the back of the handle; this would ultimately pose safety concerns. General Electric countered a year later with its cordless rechargeable Automatic Toothbrush, which was less expensive and liberated from the power cord. The GE model was bulky, however, because of its large NiCad batteries, and sometimes ran out of power mid-brushing.
Later electric toothbrushes improved on these early designs, with the Interplak introducing a rotary head in 1987. Sonicare, launched in 1992, today is the top-selling brand. The head of a Sonicare electric toothbrush rotates more than 30,000 times a second—cleaning teeth a bit better than the frayed twigs and sooty rags our ancestors used.

Now that’s something to smile about.


1498 | Chinese invent the bristle toothbrush
1780 | William Addis markets his mass-produced toothbrushes
1890s | Toothpaste is first sold in tubes, which are initially made of lead
1914 | Fluoride is added to toothpaste
1938 | Stores sell toothbrushes with synthetic nylon bristles
1948 | TV ads tell viewers “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/ when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”
1955 | Procter & Gamble introduces Crest, the first American Dental Association-approved fluoride toothpaste
1960 | Squibb debuts the electric toothbrush
1969 | Apollo 11 totes a toothbrush to the moon 

Fun facts:

Johnson & Johnson’s Reach toothbrush, introduced in the 1980s, was the first to feature an angled head and more closely concentrated bristles. Reach also tried a two-headed toothbrush, but that design failed to catch on.

Wooden false teeth were once sold by mail. To ensure a correct fit, the buyer would bite into soft wood, leaving tooth marks, and measure his gums with a piece of ribbon.
Apollo astronauts took toothbrushes to the moon. The first two, part of the Apollo 11 Oral Hygiene Set, were Lactona S-19 manual models; astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s recently went up for auction.
A 2003 survey asked Americans which modern invention would be hardest to give up. The toothbrush came in first, cited by 42 percent of adults and 34 percent of teens, beating out the automobile, personal computer, cell phone and microwave.
From the October/November 2013 Family Tree Magazine 

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