Prison, Suicide, & the Cold-Climate Hog
(the sordid history of the toothbrush)
Humans have been attempting to clean their teeth for a long time. One of the earliest tools used for this purpose was made from a twig or a branch that was chewed and worked in the mouth. Babylonian chew sticks from 3500 BC are probably the oldest oral hygiene artifacts on record.
The first bristle toothbrush was invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (619-907) and was most likely made from the coarse hairs of the cold-climate hog. Hogs living in Siberia and Northern China grew very stiff hair in response to the harsh climate, yielding a sturdy bristle material. Bristles were inserted into tiny holes made in bone or bamboo. The use of the instrument to clean teeth by Northern Chinese monks was documented in writing in 1223 by Dōgen Kigen, a Japanese Zen master traveling in China.
DEVOTION AND MURDER
The use of a miswak, or chew stick, has been an important practice throughout the Islamic world, and is considered a pious action. The miswak is made from the Salvadora persica tree (known as arak in Arabic), and is commonly used in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Central and Southeast Asia. As specified in the hadith, the miswak should be used before prayer, before entering one’s house, before and after going on a journey, on Fridays, before sleeping, after waking up, when experiencing hunger or thirst, and before entering any good gathering.
Salvadora persica (known in some parts of the world as “the toothbrush tree”) is a powerful plant with many documented pharmacological properties. In laboratory tests, stem and leaf decoctions of Salvadora persica provided significant protective action against ethanol and stress-induced ulcers, reduced cholesterol and LDL plasma levels, and inhibited oral bacteria and plaque growth. A wide variety of traditional uses of the plant in many health remedies is reported in all of the regions in which it is found. However, there are also hints of some darker uses of the toothbrush tree. The bark, stems and leaves have a chemical anti-convulsant property which increases in potency when concentrated and aged, producing a powerful paralytic that can act as a hallucinogen and has even been used to kill unsuspecting enemies.
INSPIRATION IN A PRISON CELL
Despite its long history in China, it took many centuries for the bristle toothbrush to arrive in Europe. During this time, Europeans generally cleaned their teeth by rubbing them with rags rolled in salt or soot. An English rag merchant named William Addis is generally credited with the “invention” of the modern Western toothbrush, in the year 1780. In this oft-cited legend, Addis became involved in a dispute that got out of control, and was thrown into Newgate prison, charged with starting a riot. Languishing in a dark and dank jail cell, Addis had time on his hands, and a foul-tasting mouth. The story has it that he spied a broom in a corner of a room, and was struck with inspiration. Retrieving a bone from the jail cell floor, he somehow drilled holes into it and obtained bristles from a sympathetic jailer. Under these trying circumstances, his invention was born.
After his release from prison, Addis produced a number of toothbrushes made from horsehair and bone, and began selling them in London. The popularity of the toothbrush in England grew parallel to the rise in availability and use of refined sugar, imported from the West Indies. Addis’ toothbrush enterprise expanded into a prosperous business, which was then taken over by his son. According to one source, by 1840 the Addis company employed 60 workers and produced four models of toothbrushes: Gents, Ladies, Child’s and Tom Thumb. The company, Wisdom Toothbrush/Addis Housewares, still exists today.
INNOVATION AND DESPAIR
By the 1840s toothbrushes were being mass-produced across Europe, but the first U.S. patent for a toothbrush wasn’t filed until 1857, by H.N. Wadsworth (US Patent No. 18,653). In the eloquent text accompanying his patent application, Wadsworth explains the innovations in design that make his invention patent-worthy:
The nature of my invention consists in separating the bunches of bristles more than in the common brush, so as to give more elasticity and enable them to enter between the interstices of the teeth – having the brush wide that it may be imperative on the part of the patient to brush the gums thoroughly; the brush is partly circular from heel to point the more readily to fit the circle or arch formed by the teeth, and from side to side the bristles are a little concave the more readily to adapt themselves to the oval form of the teeth; toward the point the bristles are shorter and intended to project as far as possible beyond the end and at as acute an angle as possible, while the back of bone ivory or other material is thin and rounded off so as to occupy as little room as possible, and forming almost a projecting point of bristles, particularly intended to force its Way far back in the mouth between the muscles of the cheeks, and jaws, and the back or molar teeth, and thoroughly free them from impurities, and while it keeps the teeth in these places clean, and highly polished, it also keeps the gums healthy and vigorous.
In 1935 at DuPont chemical company, a brilliant chemist named Wallace Carothers headed up a research team that invented the super-polymer which eventually became known as nylon. The replacement of animal-hair bristles with nylon bristles would revolutionize toothbrush manufacture. Nylon, of course, would have countless industrial applications in years to come. Tragically, Carothers saw himself and his life’s work at DuPont as a failure. Haunted by depression, he committed suicide by swallowing a solution laced with cyanide in 1937, just two years after his discovery of nylon.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
The invention of nylon bristles allowed for simpler, cheaper mass-production of a toothbrush less likely to harbor and grow harmful bacteria than the traditional animal bristle brush. Yet the use of the toothbrush was not popularized in the United States until soldiers returning from WWII brought this habit home, adopting the daily dental hygiene regimen that had been required in the army.
In January 2003 the Lemelson-MIT survey asked participants to rank items on a list of inventions including the automobile, the personal computer, the cellular phone, the microwave and the toothbrush. The toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without.