Have you ever given a thought about toothbrush history? Modern dentistry is so much better than it used to be. Dentists today are capable of fixing so many oral health problems and tooth complaints quickly and painlessly that we rarely stop to think about how our ancestors tried to maintain their teeth. Still, it’s interesting to look back at the ways people used to try to keep their smiles healthy and white.
How Did People Used to Brush Their Teeth?
As long as people have had fingers, they’ve no doubt brushed their teeth or tried to remove debris between them, but the first “toothbrushes” were twigs. The archeological record shows that between 3500-3000 B.C. both the Egyptians and the Babylonians were using sticks with frayed ends to scrape the plaque off their teeth. Wealthy Egyptians were even buried with them so they could brush their teeth in the afterlife.
By 1600 B.C. the Chinese were chewing on aromatic twigs in order to freshen their breath, sharpening the other end to use as a toothpick. The next generation of toothbrush would not be invented until three thousand years later, however.
An Actual Tooth Brush
1498 saw the invention of a recognizable tool: a brush with bristles. The Chinese also invented it, forming it coarse boar hairs attached to a bone or bamboo handle. As trade developed between China and the West, the invention was adapted for new populations. Europeans used the softer horse hairs or even feathers in their versions. The effectiveness of these is unknown.
In 1780 the Englishman William Addis began a business mass producing the kind of toothbrush we’d recognize today. While in prison, he invented it from an animal bone and hair, preferring it to cleaning his teeth with the dirty rags other prisoners used. Simple and cheap to make, this tool made Addis a wealthy man (after he’d served his time).
Few innovations were made to this model of toothbrush until 1937 when DuPont invented nylon, the thermoplastic silky material that can easily be melted into long lasting fibers that are easy to clean and sterilize. The first toothbrush with nylon bristles – like the ones we use today – appeared in 1938. Since unlike hair, those fibers do not degrade or rot when exposed to moisture and bacteria, this was a vast improvement both in terms of cleaning and personal hygiene.
In Switzerland in 1954 Dr. Philippe Guy Woog invented the electric toothbrush and called it the Broxodent. It plugged right into a wall socket and was used by people with limited mobility in their arms and hands. This type of toothbrush was not introduced to America until 1959. General Electric produced an automatic toothbrush that ran on batteries in the early 1960s. In 1992 the first ultrasonic toothbrush was patented and the FDA approved it for daily home use. Shortly thereafter toothbrushes using both ultrasound and sonic vibration began to appear on the market. That brings us to today with people using different varieties of toothbrushes ranging from the very simple and cheap to the technologically advanced and expensive.
Ultimately, however, the design of the toothbrush has remained largely the same over millennia: a stick with bristles that is brushed over the teeth with rapid motions in order to remove plaque and leftover food. The toothbrushes that we use today seem fancier, but they do much the same job as the ones Egyptian pharaohs once used.