Toothbrush from Twig to Bristle In All Its Expedient Beauty
(June 2014 – May 2015)
At first glance the toothbrush seems like a goofy, almost comical implement. Made these days from garish brightly colored molded plastic, sometimes decorated with cartoon character faces or affected, ergonomic handgrips and flashy angled brush heads, unceremoniously tossed in medicine cabinets or propped offhandedly in a rinse cup in the bathroom, they don’t automatically project an aura of dignity and gravitas.
Arguably one of the most basic and intimate of human tools, we place the toothbrush actually inside our bodies daily. Its one end shaped to cradle in the grip of the hand, the other to fit neatly into the dark spaces of the mouth, the toothbrush connects these parts of the body that most define us as human: the opposable thumb and the seat of human speech. This object grooms and massages and maintains in good working order the parts of the mouth that articulate our desires and dreams, the key to our agency.
Brushing of teeth in the morning and night is a ritual shared by a plurality of Americans regardless of class, racial and cultural background. The brief but regular duration of daily tooth-brushing affords a pause in the urgent press of daily life ambitions and expectations, a moment of reflection, vacant contemplative staring into the mirror, or shared “private” time with roommates, siblings or spouses.
The toothbrush is public – unashamedly carried in purses, placed in workplace lockers, desk drawers, or office bookshelves. No one is afraid a passerby will inadvertently see their toothbrush. Their ubiquity connects us, and is somehow a great equalizer – even presidents, dictators and rock stars brush their teeth.
But we also remember that the rise of the toothbrush and ritual tooth-brushing was born and grew hand-in-hand with the ascendancy of refined sugar in the modern diets of rich and imperialist nations. Sugar – that great engine of slavery and colonial crime, the companion to coffee and tea, the great enablers, helping workers to survive long hours, poor diets, the rigors of the pitiless industrial revolution! Sugar is pleasure, a delight in the kingdom of hummingbird and human, but also a poison laced with a dark history of conquest and toil, something we nightly must brush and brush and brush away.
We brush to feel clean again, to delay the slow decay of our teeth, the only bones of our skeleton that are fully exposed. Although our human teeth are hard and strong, able to cleave nuts and tear into meat, inevitably over the years of our lives the mild bristles of toothbrushes wear grooves into our teeth. Thus we shape and sculpt our own mortal frame; thus the toothbrush works daily, touching our essential core.
The exhibition offered unique ways of looking at the Toothbrush, including unlikely objects made from toothbrushes, as well as a sampling of toothbrushes from around the world. The Visual History of the toothbrush, titled From Prison to Suicide to Cold Climate Hog, recounted the sordid and surprising history of the toothbrush. Also featured were selections from Vermont’s own G. Miller Toothbrush and Dental Accessory Archive of Montpelier, alongside many other toothbrush-related ephemera and oddities.