The evolution of the toothbrush
The toothbrush is an essential tool that is used for the care of our teeth. Have you ever missed brushing your teeth for one day? Have you ever considered what it would be like without the toothbrush? Like many common household items, we give little thought about the origins or the trials and tribulations these products went through to arrive at their modern form.
The toothbrush is no exception.
There is no single person credited as being the sole inventor of the toothbrush. Actually, the toothbrush evolved over time and mainly out of necessity.
Traces of the first toothbrush can be dated back as early as 3500 B.C.E. (before common era) and were thought to be used by the Egyptians and Babylonians. This piece of toothbrush history proves that this device is one of the oldest still used by man. The primitive form of the toothbrush was found in the pyramids of the Egyptians.
These ancient civilizations used a “chew stick” to clean their teeth. This consisted of chewing on one end of the stick until the fibers of the wood formed a brush. These chewing sticks were made out of Salvadora persica branches, which were believed to have healing and antiseptic qualities.
The Chinese are credited with inventing the first bristle toothbrush, similar to the type used today. In the late 15th century, the Chinese took the hairs of Siberian wild boar and manipulated them onto bamboo sticks, one of the most common plants from that region. These bamboo sticks were then used just like a modern manual toothbrush to clean the teeth.
Eventually, the Chinese version of the toothbrush made its way to Europe. One of the biggest downsides to using the Siberian wild boar hair was the fact that it was very rough on the gums. Because of this, some people began to use the hair found on the back of horses to create the bristles on their brushes because this was gentler on their gums and teeth. Despite the added softness of the horsehair bristles, the boar-hair sticks were more commonly used because horses were too valuable to Europeans during this era.
An alternative method Europeans used to clean their teeth was known as the Greek way. It consisted of rubbing ones teeth with a linen cloth or sponge dipped in sulfur oils and salt solutions. Sometimes these cloths were attached to a stick to help reach posterior teeth.
One could argue that the teeth were being mopped rather than being brushed. Essentially, during this era most Europeans still did not brush their teeth.
Around 1780, the first modern toothbrush was made by William Addis of Clerkenald, England. Legend has it that the idea actually came to Addis while in prison. Boredom proved to be the motive for Addis to take a bone left behind from his dinner, and bristles that he borrowed from a guard, and combine them to create a tool to clean his teeth.
This alternative was far superior to a dirty cloth with soot and salt. After his release, William Addis became the first person to mass-produce toothbrushes. The Addis version of the toothbrush used cow tail hair drilled and tied onto cow bones.
During World War I, the growing need for soup bone became more important than the need for brush handles. This sparked the birth of Celluloid handles that were made by injecting plastic into molds and cooling them in a given shape. Celluloid handles soon became the No. 1 choice for toothbrush handles.
Animal hair bristles continued to be used until 1937, when Wallace H. Carothers created nylon in the Du Pont laboratories. This invention forever changed the history of the toothbrush. In 1938, nylon became one of the first signs of modernization, from the creation of nylon stockings to Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft Toothbrush, the first nylon toothbrush.
Nylon filament seemed to be the natural choice for replacing animal hair bristles with its countless advantages, including lower production costs and the ability to control bristle texture. Manufacturers found they could also shape the filament tip and vary its diameter for improved performance.
Several disadvantages to boar hair were that it often fell out, did not dry well and was prone to bacterial growth. Although nylon continues to dominate the market today, boar hair bristle still account for about 10 percent of toothbrushes sold worldwide.
After World War II, Americans began to become more concerned about oral hygiene. Brushing teeth regularly became popular in the United States after soldiers returned home and brought with them their strict habits of brushing their teeth.
This influence spurred the development of more advanced toothbrushes and helped bring oral hygiene into the mainstream.
Today, more than 3,000 toothbrush patents exist worldwide. The brands, styles and colors of toothbrushes are virtually endless.
Manufactures now offer toothbrushes customized to a patient’s personal needs. Bristle design and texture as well as the size of the brush head are just a few of the variables available for manual toothbrushes, not to mention electric ones, that patients may choose among.
Over the centuries, the toothbrush has seen many changes in designs and materials used. Now the toothbrush is a scientific instrument, which comes in diverse colors, shapes and sizes. It’s a tool with modern ergonomic designs and safe hygienic materials. The toothbrush has stood the test of time, thus earning the title of being the cornerstone of proper oral hygiene.
Emily Sutter, RDH, BS, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial note: This article was originally published in Hygiene Tribune Vol. 4, No. 3, 2011. A complete list of references is available from the publisher.