The Humble Toothbrush’s Extravagant Past

*the following guest blog was written by Brendan Cull, 2013 Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Health Care. 

Oral hygiene and beauty have been interlinked throughout history. Since ancient times, people have attempted to clean their teeth to reduce or eliminate the pain and embarrassment of tooth decay while also working towards a perfect smile.

The earliest known “toothbrushes” were chewing sticks made of wood.[1] In Asia, Africa and the Middle East, people have enjoyed the cleansing qualities and whitening effect of wood fibre on their teeth for thousands of years. These sticks, in Islamic tradition, are called miswak or siwak[2] and were enthusiastically recommended by the Prophet Mohammad, who included instructions for their use in the Qur’an.[3] They were, and still are made from the roots, twigs and stem of the Salvadora persica tree (see below).[4],[5]

Salvadora persica, also know as the “Toothbrush Tree,” is typically used for making chewing sticks in Islamic tradition. They are recommended by the World Health Organization to promote oral health. Credit: Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar. Wellcome Image
Salvadora persica, also know as the “Toothbrush Tree,” is typically used for making chewing sticks in Islamic tradition. They are recommended by the World Health Organization to promote oral health. Credit: Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar. Wellcome Image

The preferred wood naturally contains sodium bicarbonate (baking soda is a common ingredient in many toothpastes today) and tannic acid (an antibacterial agent), as well as other beneficial chemicals that help to whiten teeth, remove food residue, support overall oral health, and maintain an attractive smile.[6] Chewing sticks were accessible to many people because they were prepared using readily available materials, and practitioners of the Islamic faith embraced and encouraged them wholeheartedly.

The toothbrush has not been so widely accessible in all cultures; in fact, throughout much of its history, this tool has been enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthy and powerful. Affluent Roman women are said to have used brushes as well as mastic chewing gum (pictured below) to preserve their teeth or to keep up appearances if they no longer had any, suggesting that they were used as status symbols.[7] The Chinese invented the first toothbrush, as we know it, around either 1000 or 1498 CE[8] and used luxurious and costly materials such as ivory or oxbone, along with horse hair or hog bristles.[9]

Mastic chewing gum from the Pistacia lentiscus tree, a plant native to the Mediterranean, was chewed by the Romans to freshen their breath and preserve their teeth (we now know that this is due to its antibacterial properties). Credit: Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar. Wellcome Images
Mastic chewing gum from the Pistacia lentiscus tree, a plant native to the Mediterranean, was chewed by the Romans to freshen their breath and preserve their teeth (we now know that this is due to its antibacterial properties). Credit: Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar. Wellcome Images

Twig brushes were employed by upper class women in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867 CE) to clean their teeth and apply extravagant black dye to their enamel as a demonstration of fidelity to their husbands.[10] Furthermore, Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush (pictured below) – an elegantly monogrammed, silver gilt and hog bristle brush – demonstrates the exclusivity of such hygiene tools, even into the early nineteenth century, since only the fabulously wealthy could afford to brush their teeth with such an implement.

Napoleon Bonaparte brushed his teeth with expensive, imported opium-based toothpaste along with this glamorous silver plated toothbrush. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Napoleon Bonaparte brushed his teeth with expensive, imported opium-based toothpaste along with this glamorous silver plated toothbrush. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Another highly decorated toothbrush (in the Museum of Health Care’s collection) from the early twentieth century is clearly a fashionable accoutrement designed to show off its owner’s wealth.

A silver-plated Edwardian toothbrush with hog bristles set in ivory (circa 1900-1908). Museum of Health Care # 010020417
A silver-plated Edwardian toothbrush with hog bristles set in ivory (circa 1900-1908). Museum of Health Care # 010020417

But with a basic design (i.e. a handle with bristles attached at ninety degrees), as well as other options for handles and bristles, why was the toothbrush such an elitist tool? It seems to have been a deliberate choice. Toothbrush makers were aiming to please rich and powerful patrons, and therefore used the best and most luxurious materials they could find.

It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that regular oral care  reached the masses.[11] Up until then, toothbrushes were simply too expensive.[12] At this time in America, more affordable versions were coming onto the market, but shared, family and even public toothbrushes were common.[13] A dramatic change in the materials used to make these tools occurred around the First World War due to shortages of bone and natural bristles combined with a lack of skilled workers.[14] Out of necessity, North American manufacturers turned to inexpensive and innovative materials such as celluloid, plastic and wood for handles, and nylon fibres instead of natural bristles.[15] As a result, prices dropped significantly so that just about everybody could afford his or her own toothbrush.[16] The health benefits of regular oral care were also being recognized by the British Armed Forces and, as a result, every serviceman was provided with his own brush during the War.[17] These events helped to popularize the toothbrush as a basic home health care tool and the best option for maintaining an attractive smile. Below is a Japanese example of one of these reinvented toothbrushes dating from about 1935-1945 (also in the Museum’s collection). It seems that these improvements were far reaching and had an effect on the manufacturing process as far away as Japan.

A wood-handled, synthetic bristle toothbrush (circa 1935-1945) made in Japan. Museum of Health Care # 010020498
A wood-handled, synthetic bristle toothbrush (circa 1935-1945) made in Japan. Museum of Health Care # 010020498

With an increased awareness of germs, the introduction of public tooth brushing clinics and, in some cities, free brushes for children, the individual toothbrush entered the household.[18]

Today’s search for the whitest and straightest teeth is a continuation of our obsessive quest for oral beauty. A movie star smile is more attainable than ever due to the dramatic reduction of cavities and periodontal diseases in the past one hundred years (largely thanks to the toothbrush).[19] These medical advances have allowed many dental professionals to begin to focus on fine-tuning the processes and technologies used to replace, straighten and bleach our pearly whites.


[1] Stuart L. Frichman, “The history of oral hygiene products: how far have we come in 6000 years?,” Periodontology 15 (2000): 9.

[2] Frischman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 8-9.

[3] Frichman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 8.

[4] R. M. A. Al-Teen, K. N. Said and E. J. S. Abu Alhaija, “Siwak as a oral hygiene aid in patients with fixed orthodontic appliances,” International Journal of Dental Hygiene 4 (2006), 190.

[5] Malvin E. Ring, “Chapter V: The Islamic World,” in Dentistry: An Illustrated History (Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated: New York, 1985), 71.

[6] Al-Teen, Said and Abu Alhaija, “Siwak as a oral hygiene aid,” 190.

[7] Lawrence Wright, “Chapter XVII: Toilet Sundries,” Clean and Decent: The fascinating history of the bathroom & water closet and of sundry, habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet principally in Great Britain, France, & America (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1960), 245.

[8] Frichman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Malvin E. Ring, “Chapter VI: The Far East,” in Dentistry: An Illustrated History (Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated: New York, 1985): 98.

[11] Fischman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 9.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Fischman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 9.

[14] John M. Hyson, “History of the Toothbrush,” Journal of the History of Dentistry 51 no. 2 (2003), 76.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fischman, “The history of oral hygiene products,” 9.

[17] Elizabeth Fee and Theodore M. Brown, “Popularizing the Toothbrush,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 5 (2004): 721.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gerard Kugel and Susanna Ferreira, “The Art and Science of Tooth Whitening,” Inside Dentistry 2 no. 7 (2006): 1.

Bibliography

Aksoy, Alev, Nizami Duran and Fatih Koksal. “In vitro and in vivo antimicrobial effects of mastic chewing gum against Streptococcus mutans and mutans streptococci.” Archives of Oral Biology 51 no. 6 (2006): 476-481.

Al-Teen, R. M. A., K. N. Said and E. J. S. Abu Alhaija. “Siwak as a oral hygiene aid in patients with fixed orthodontic appliances.” International Journal of Dental Hygiene 4 (2006): 189-197.

Fee, Elizabeth and Theodore M. Brown. “Popularizing the Toothbrush.” American Journal of Public Health 94 no. 5 (2004): 721.

Frichman, Stuart L. “The history of oral hygiene products: how far have we come in 6000 years?.” Periodontology 15 (2000): 7-14.

Goyal, Manoj, D. Sasmal and B. P. Nagori. “Salvadora persica (Meswak): Chewing Stick for Complete Oral Care.” International Journal of Pharmacology 7 no. 4 (2011): 440-445.

Hyson, John M. “History of the Toothbrush,” Journal of the History of Dentistry 51 no. 2 (2003): 73-80.

Khatak, M., S. Khatak, A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal and P. Aggarwal. “Salvadora persica.” Pharmacognosy Review 4 no. 8 (2010): 209-214.

Kugel, Gerard and Susanna Ferreira. “The Art and Science of Tooth Whitening.” Inside Dentistry 2 no. 7 (2006): 34-37.

Masood, Yaghma, Mohd Masood, Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Hassan and Fouad M. A. Al-bayaty. “Biological effects of miswak (salvadora persica).” Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research 8 no. 4 (2010): 161-168.

Ring, Malvin E. Dentistry: An Illustrated History.New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1985.

Rosenberg, Mel. “The Science of Bad Breath.” Scientific American. April 2002: 72-79.

Sgan-Cohen, Harold D. “Oral hygiene: past history and future recommendations.” International Journal of Dental Hygiene. 3 (2005): 54-58.

Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The fascinating history of the bathroom & water closet and of sundry, habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet principally in Great Britain, France, & America. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1960.

 *We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada (Youth Employment Strategy) through the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Young Canada Works Program 

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