Sometimes we take small, everyday things for granted.
Have you ever wondered who invented hairbrushes, buttons, or flashlights?
Today’s blog will look at one of these mundane but necessary objects of daily
Who were the first people to use the toothbrush? The first recorded form of teeth cleaning was
by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, who would chew on the frayed ends of
sticks from aromatic trees to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. Chew
sticks, or miswaks, have been found in Egyptian tombs along with vinegar and
ground pumice, which were used to whiten the smile. People in some African countries
still use these chew sticks today and they are commercially available on the
internet, touted as a more sustainable alternative to plastic.
A recipe for toothpaste was found in an ancient
Egyptian document. Crushed and mixed together, these ingredients were said to
make a “powder for white and perfect teeth” (Toothpaste - Welcome to Ancient Egypt! (weebly.com))
drachma (.01 oz) of rock salt
drachmas of mint
drachma of dried iris flower
grains of pepper
Other people used a cloth, or a cloth wrapped stick to
rub the teeth to clean them. Some used salt or different herbs as a type of
toothpaste. Native Americans may have used sticks with pine needles or animal
hair attached to brush their teeth and a type of toothpaste made from the herb
tarragon or the cucacua plant. Although in general, most people did not regularly
practice brushing their teeth until well into the late 19th or early
Around the 15th century, the Chinese are
generally credited with the invention of the toothbrush. A handle made of
animal bone or bamboo was attached to the stiff hair bristles of a hog. Later,
when these toothbrushes were brought to Europe, the hog bristles were replaced
with wild boar or horse hairs.
The first modern toothbrush was invented in England
around 1780 by William Addis, a rag merchant. Addis was serving time in Newgate
Prison where he allegedly saved an animal bone from his meal and after drilling
small holes in it, he attached hairs from a boar. The toothbrush worked so well
that once Addis was released from prison, he began to mass produce his invention.
The company he started was known first as Addis but was later renamed Wisdom
In America, the first toothbrush patent was not filed
until 1857, when Hiram Wadsworth made improvements to the design. Most toothbrushes
were made of bone at this time because it was an inexpensive material and stood
up to water better than wood. Wealthier people may have had brushes made of
ivory, silver, gilt, and mother of pearl, but the preferred material was bone.
Bone Toothbrush from site 36DE0130 (photo
by CHRS, Inc.)
Toothpastes in the form of powders made with soap, chalk, and charcoal were popular through the nineteenth century and were packaged in jars. By the 1890s, toothpaste was available in tubes.
|Nineteenth Century Toothpaste Ad (Library of Congress)
By the turn of the 20th century, most toothbrushes were being made from celluloid, an early type of plastic. Following the invention of nylon in 1935, DuPont chemical replaced the animal hair bristles with nylon bristles. A number of toothbrushes of all varieties, including celluloid, were recovered from the Market Street Bridge Site (36DE0130) in Philadelphia. Excavations were conducted in the rear yards of several houses associated with black and white working-class families in the 1920s. These finds indicate that similar patterns of material consumption were taking place between people of different races in this neighborhood.
|Bone and Celluloid Toothbrushes from site 36DE0130 (Photo by CHRS, Inc.)
|Early 20th Century Zanol Brand Celluloid Toothbrush from site 36DE0130 (Photo by CHRS, Inc.)
Electric toothbrushes were first invented in the 1930s but not widely used until after 1960. New types of toothpastes and mouthwashes that provided better dental care came on the market during this time.
|Rolled Toothpaste Tube with Key from the Merkey House site (36BK0891) and Late Nineteenth Century Glyco-Thymoline Mouthwash Bottle from the Market Street Bridge site (36DE0130) (Photo by PHMC)
We hope you have enjoyed finding out some information about an object that we use every day and that is so important to our overall health. It’s hard to believe but a survey in 2003 ranked the toothbrush as the number one invention that Americans could not live without – beating out the car, cell phone, personal computer, and microwave! Archaeology reveals the little things we use on a regular basis and provides an opportunity to examine daily activities of people, from the mundane to the exceptional. These artifacts enhance and improve our understanding of the past.
For additional information on toothbrushes and dental
care check out the collections on the PHMC website or the sites listed below.