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Your Toothbrush And Its History

By LC Van Savage

Look around. See all the stuff you own that you totally take for granted? Everything has a history you know. The safety pin, can opener, beer, the toilet, back scratchers, buttons, deodorant, condoms, everything. So let’s pick one thing to do a little exhaustive research on and learn about its history. How’s about the lowly but important and hugely big-business toothbrush?

Yes, we all have one, or some, or ought to if we don’t. After all, no human wants to have much truck with another human who does not brush his/her teeth. Eeuw. Those are the people one avoids at parties. No, that’s not true; they’re not actually ever invited to parties.

Expensive, important tools are they. But, where did toothbrushes come from? After exhaustive research I’m happy to tell you, so that tonight or tomorrow when you pick up that plastic stalk with the bristles at the end you’ll have the proper respect.

Around 3000 BC give or take a millennia, some Egyptian person, probably a mother, was sick and tired of being grossed out by her kids’ rotten mouths and so invented a “chew stick” which she said she’d use on their hind ends if they didn’t use it in their mouths as she insisted. It was a simple stick made of whatever tree was popular in Egypt at the time, about the size of today’s pencil, and one end was frayed to a fibrous, soft condition. The ends of those sticks were rubbed against the teeth which was better than nothing considering that toothpaste, mouthwash and floss string had yet to be invented. One would hope that Egyptian water was used too in that process, and that the stick was well washed off after each use,-- and of course thrown away and replaced every three months.

We’re certain about all this because chew sticks have been found in Egyptian tombs from 3000 BC. I guess they were put in there with all that gold and other things the dearly departed mummy would need in his afterlife. Good hygiene after all, is important in all planes of existence, right? Even Ye Gods dislike hanging with beings who are groom-challenged.

So the wee stick with the frayed end began it all, and I suspect that when young Egyptian lads were yearning for the hand of young Egyptian lasses they gave their teeth a good scrub before they made their moves. I mean even back then, young swains stacked the odds. We didn’t invent all that you know.

The chew sticks are still used, you’ll be surprised to hear. Yes, in my exhaustive research I found that certain African tribes make and use chew sticks from a certain kind of tree they call, yes, the “Toothbrush Tree.” Go figure. And guess what? The ADA during their exhaustive research efforts have discovered that in some very remote areas of this our beloved U S and A, chew sticks are still used. In the remote areas of the South they’re called “twig brushes” and they’re still in use there also. But hey, I saw “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and in no scenes did I see Sissy Spacek using a twig brush, and they were really, really poor people depicted in that movie. That film company obviously didn’t do their exhaustive research.

Look, leave us not mock or smile condescendingly about the use of twig brushes. The word on them, by Doctors of Dentistry at least, is that they are good and very effective. As good as, maybe better than, nylon bristled brushes. Yes, hard to believe. Well, frankly I’d personally prefer nylon bristled brushes. I mean life has enough things to worry about; I’d prefer to not add gum splinters to my list. But seriously, chew sticks really work, so if you find yourself lost in the wilderness with serious morning mouth, hack off a twig, fray the end and go nuts.

The ADA claims that one elderly gentleman from Louisiana used white elm sticks for his entire life, and they found his mouth was totally plaque free and his gums healthy, pink and strong. Yes, OK, but did he have dazzlingly white teeth and minty fresh breath? Maybe not, but I hear that white elm has a most pleasant aftertaste so maybe he was OK and didn’t offend after all.

Fast forward from Egypt to China to the year 1498 AD. Everyone knows the Chinese are smart, inventive, strong people. They obviously didn’t care for chew sticks or maybe there weren’t any good trees about, so wanting great, clean teeth, they invented the first nylon bristled toothbrush, only the nylon bristles turned out to be bristles from the back of the necks of hogs. Not just any hogs mind you, but hogs who lived in the most frigid areas of Siberia and China because as we all know the bristles on the backs of the necks of all creatures, maybe even us, grow much sturdier, thicker and firmer in very cold climates, like Maine, and most especially on shivering hogs. Those bristles had to be hand plucked of course so one hopes the hogs were either dead first or at least so cold they didn’t notice. These wiry unbreakable bristles were affixed to the ends of bamboo handles or maybe even bone, although one hopes the bone wasn’t also removed from the poor beleaguered hog while he was desperately rooting around in the tundra.

When the enterprising Chinese tried to sell their hog-bristle toothbrushes to Europeans, it was a no-sale situation. Europeans were apparently too woossie for them, finding the bristles too painful and hard. Those Europeans who bothered to brush, and apparently not too many did back then, preferred horsehair toothbrushes.

Then along comes one Dr. Pierre Fauchard who said in his dental textbook , likely not a best-seller, in around 1723 that horsehair was too soft and that people should just vigorously rub their teeth and gums with a piece of natural sponge. Back then, humans really depended on the animal world a lot to keep their body parts clean, especially their teeth. Guess we still do. For a while even badgers had to give up their pelts for toothbrushes. But then along came the very grossly impolite habit of picking the teeth with a quill—again one of God’s creatures having to give it up for dental hygiene—although the wealthy Romans used silver or gold picks.

Enter Dr. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) who raised everyone’s germ consciousness during his illustrious career. He announced that all animal- hair toothbrushes were bad because they retained moisture and therefore bacteria and he strongly recommended people cease brushing with critter fur. The animal world I’m sure breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But, what to do, what to do about the toothbrushing issue? Not to worry; finally a solution to the problem---the nylon bristle toothbrush. People finally began to be able to smile openly and not with a hand, a fan, a newspaper, mask or book over their faces. The pearly whites really began to be pearly. This great new invention happened in 1938 AD, the year I was born. I humbly take no credit for either happy occurrence. Keep smilin’ folks!

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