History of Toothbrushes
From Chewing Sticks to Animal Bones
[Estimated read time: 5 minutes]
Toothbrushes are well known today as being an essential way of keeping our mouth and teeth healthy and have been for decades. But, toothbrushes have seen many changes before reaching the brightly colored dental cleaning device they are today.
Ancient Egyptians and Chewing Sticks
Ancient Egyptians are responsible for many creations, most notably their unique method of keeping their mouths clean: Chewing sticks.
These sticks are the grandfathers of toothbrushes today and are usually made up of twigs that feature a side that can be used as a toothpick while the other features a frayed end that is used to brush teeth.
The earliest instance of these chew sticks can be found in Egyptian tombs, which the Egyptians used alongside ground pumice and vinegar to achieve a whiter smile. Naturally, the combination was often a recipe for extensive dental damage.
Surprisingly, these chew sticks are still fairly common in certain areas of Africa to this day. They’re an eco-friendly alternative from a tree called Salvadora persica also known as miswak that prevents tooth decay and gum disease without the need for toothpaste. This is highly beneficial for those in the area who lack the resources for proper dental care.
While the use of ground pumice and vinegar didn’t catch on, it did lay the groundwork for future generations to use as the basis for toothbrushes.
Toothbrushes From China to Europe
While chewing sticks provided a clean mouth, nothing can compare to the modern bristle toothbrush. The closest to this would be a toothbrush made of bamboo or bone with hog hair bristles that were common during the Tang Dynasty in China.
This use of animal bone as the handle was one that would be used for years to come and one that many in the era found as a reliable resource.
Thanks to this creation, travelers brought this toothbrush to Europe during the 17th century, where it slowly gained popularity.
Hog hairs are a tad too firm, so horse hairs were also used. Due to the high-value horses had during this time, most toothbrushes were still made with hog hairs.
Despite this innovation, most of Europe still did not practice regular brushing. They instead relied on a Greek Method which involved rubbing your teeth with a linen cloth on a stick that has been dipped in salt and sulfur oils.
1st Mass Produced Toothbrush
After this unique device had been spread alongside the European area, it resulted in many mass-produced toothbrush companies popping up.
The first well-known mass-produced toothbrush was created by William Addis. He came up with the idea after being jailed during a riot.
At the time, he only had a rag with salt and soot to clean his teeth (the aforementioned Greek method), so he decided to save an animal bone to remedy that. By drilling small holes inside of it and obtaining some bristles from guards, he sealed the creation with some glue and made the toothbrush.
Once released from jail, he started the business called Wisdom Toothbrushes. At Wisdom, he produced toothbrushes at a large scale and built a fortune. This stroke of luck resulted in Addis becoming the first among many to start production and set the wheels of dental care in motion.
By that time, there was mass production of toothbrushes in England, France, Germany, and Japan. Cheaper options in these areas were designed with pig bristle and more expensive ones used with badger hair.
Modern Day Toothbrushes
Despite the advancements, animal bristle still retained bacteria and didn’t dry well. Also, the bristles often fell out. This could cause issues down the line and result in cosmetic dentistry being needed.
Nylon was invented as a replacement. Made by Du Pont in 1938, nylon was quickly used as a replacement through nylon yarn and saw great success upon its release.
During war, animal bones were needed for soups. As a result, a better alternative had to be used. This came in the form of celluloid handles. They were a cheap alternative and were easy to manufacture, with plastic molds to shape them. Celluloid handles became the firm replacement and they replaced the bone handles in the 1900s.
Not one to be outdone, nylon bristles were replaced by synthetic fibers in 1938. The result is an easy to manufacture toothbrush that gained traction as the basis for dental care today.
Shortly after, the celluloid found in handles were replaced with thermoplastic materials. These are a cheaper and easier to mold material that are used frequently to this day by bigger dental companies such as Colgate and Crest.
There are over 3000 patents for the toothbrush and virtually endless styles and colors including electric toothbrushes. With this amount of variations, there are toothbrushes that can fit the dental needs of every person.
Toothbrushes are only part of what keeps your teeth healthy, read our brief history of toothpaste to find out more about the history of dental care.