The Complete History of the Toothbrush

Don’t you find toothbrushes really interesting?

Not only have they been around a long time (in one form or another), they are indispensable. In fact, in a recent Lemelson/MIT survey, the toothbrush beat out the computer and the car as an invention Americans said they could not live without. So where did this incredible (yet simple) device come from?

You will probably be surprised at how long the toothbrushes have been around.

A variety of oral hygiene measures have been used since before recorded history, prior to the toothbrush. This has been verified by various excavations done all over the world, in which chew sticks, tree twigs, bird feathers, animal bones, and porcupine quills were recovered.

The first toothpicks

Oral hygiene was practiced by the Sumerians of 3000 BCE, and elaborately decorated gold toothpicks found in excavations in Mesopotamia suggest an interest in the cleanliness of the mouth. Mesopotamians wrote on the Siwak, of another version of the basic tooth stick, which was made from porcupine quills, bird feathers, or wooden thorns.

In a later treatise, the Charaka Samhita, tooth brushing and oral hygiene were stressed – “The stick for brushing the teeth should be either an astringent or pungent or bitter. One of its ends should be chewed in the form of a brush. It should be used twice a day, taking care that the gums not be injured.”

The predecessor of the toothbrush is the chew stick. Chew sticks were twigs with a frayed end used to brush against the teeth while the other end was used as a toothpick. The earliest chew sticks, made from the branches of the Salvadora persica tree, were discovered in Babylonia in 3500 BC, an Egyptian tomb dating from 3000 BC,  and mentioned in Chinese records dating from 1600 BC.

Primitive toothbrushes

Another very effective oral hygiene aid was boar bristles mounted on a bamboo stick. The Greeks and Romans used toothpicks to clean their teeth, and toothpick-like twigs have been excavated in Qin Dynasty tombs.  The use of the toothbrush is mentioned in the writings of many of the Roman poets. The Chinese were amongst the first people to use the chewstick as a toothpick and toothbrush to clean the teeth and massage the gingival tissues.

Chewsticks were made of plant limbs or roots, with one end beaten into a soft fibrous condition and used for scrubbing and brushing the teeth. Chewsticks are still being used by some peoples and nations. Chew sticks remain common in Africa and in the rural Southern United States. In the Islamic world, the use of chewing stick Miswak is considered a pious action, and has been prescribed to be used before every prayer five times a day. Miswak has been used by Muslims since 7th Century AD.

The toothbrush appeared about the year 1600 in China, was first patented in America in 1857, and has since undergone little changes. Chinese dentists would clean teeth with hairs of pigs, pasted on bamboo sticks or animal bones. Europeans would brush their teeth by dipping linen cloth or sponges in sulphur oils and salt solutions, and rubbing away all the tooth grime.

The modern toothbrush

William Addis became the first person to mass produce modern toothbrushes. He used cow hair drilled and tied on to cow bones. Later versions used horse hair instead of boar hair because it was softer. The first bristle toothbrush, resembling the modern toothbrush, was found in China during the Tang Dynasty (619–907) and used hog bristle. The bristles were sourced from hogs living in Siberia and northern China, because the colder temperatures provided firmer bristles.

In 1223, Japanese Zen master Dōgen Kigen recorded on Shōbōgenzō that he saw monks in China clean their teeth with brushes made of horse-tail hairs attached to an ox-bone handle.

The bristle toothbrush spread to Europe, brought back from China to Europe by travellers. It was adopted in Europe during the 17th century. The earliest identified use of the word “toothbrush” in English, was in the autobiography of Anthony Wood, who wrote in 1690 that he had bought a toothbrush from J. Barret.

Europeans found the hog bristle toothbrushes exported from merchants in China too firm, and preferred softer bristle toothbrushes manufactured from horsehair. Mass-produced toothbrushes, made with horse or boar bristle, continued to be imported to England from China until the mid-20th century.

William Addis, of England, is believed to have produced the first mass-produced toothbrush, in 1780. In 1770 he had been jailed for causing a riot; while in prison, he decided that the method used to clean teeth – at the time rubbing a rag with soot and salt on the teeth – was ineffective and could be improved. To that end, he saved a small animal bone left over from the meal he had eaten the previous night, into which he drilled small holes. He then obtained some bristles from one of his guards, which he tied in tufts that he then passed through the holes in the bone, and which he finally sealed with glue. After his release, he started a business that would manufacture the toothbrushes he had built, and he soon became very rich.

Addis died in 1808, and left the business to his eldest son, also called William, and it stayed in family ownership until 1996. Under the name Wisdom Toothbrushes, the company now manufactures 70 million toothbrushes per year in the UK. By 1840, toothbrushes were being mass-produced in England, France, Germany, and Japan. Pig bristle was used for cheaper toothbrushes, and badger hair for the more expensive ones.

The first patent for a toothbrush was granted to H. N. Wadsworth, in 1857 (US Patent No. 18,653) in the United States, but mass production in the United States only started in 1885. The rather advanced design had a bone handle with holes bored into it for the Siberian boar hair bristles.

Unfortunately, animal bristle was not an ideal material as it retains bacteria, and does not dry well, and the bristles often fell out. In addition to bone, sometimes handles were made of wood or ivory. In the United States, brushing teeth did not become routine until after World War II, when American soldiers had to clean their teeth daily.

Newly designed toothbrushes.

During the 1900s, celluloid handles gradually replaced bone handles in toothbrushes. Natural animal bristles were also replaced by synthetic fibers, usually nylon, by DuPont in 1938. The first nylon bristle toothbrush, made with nylon yarn, went on sale on February 24, 1938. The first such toothbrush was called Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft Toothbrush.

In 1939 the first electric toothbrush, the Broxodent, was invented in Switzerland in 1954. As of the turn of the 21st century, nylon had come to be widely used for the bristles, and the handles were usually moulded from thermoplastic materials.

Johnson & Johnson, a leading medical-supplies firm, introduced the “Reach” toothbrush in the middle 1980s. It differed from previous toothbrushes in three ways: First, it had an angled head, similar to dental instruments, to reach back teeth; second, the bristles were concentrated more closely than usual to clean each tooth of potentially cariogenic (cavity-causing) materials; and third, the outer bristles were longer and softer than the inner bristles, to clean between teeth.

The Reach toothbrush was the first to have a specialized design intended to increase its effectiveness. Other models, from other manufacturers, soon followed; each of these had unique design features intended to be, and promoted as being, more effective than the basic toothbrush design that had been employed for years.

In January 2003, the toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without, according to the LemelsonMIT Invention Index. But many Americans still don’t brush their teeth at least twice a day!

Types of toothbrushes

Today, both manual and electric toothbrushes come in many shapes and sizes, and are typically made of plastic moulded handles and nylon bristles. The most recent toothbrush models include handles that are straight, angled, curved, and contoured with grips and soft rubber areas to make them easier to hold and use. Toothbrush bristles are usually synthetic and range from very soft to slightly soft in texture, although harder bristle versions are available. Toothbrush heads range from very small for young children, to larger sizes for older children and adults, and come in a variety of shapes such as rectangular, oblong, oval, and almost round.

The basic fundamentals have not changed since the times of the Egyptians and Babylonians – a handle to grip, and a bristle-like feature with which to clean the teeth. Over its long history, the toothbrush has evolved to become a scientifically designed tool using modern ergonomic designs and safe and hygienic materials that benefit us all. Whatever type of tooth brush you use, do so regularly to help keep your white smile in great shape.

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