The first toothbrush used by ancients was a “chew stick”, a pencil-size twig with one end frayed to a soft, fibrous condition. Evidence of their use dates back to 3000 BC.
The American Dental Association discovered that chew sticks often served as toothbrushes for people living in remote areas of the US. In the South they were known as “twig brushes”. Dentists reported on one elderly man living near Shreveport, LA, who had used frayed white elm sticks all his life and had plaque-free teeth and healthy gums.
The first bristle toothbrush, similar to today’s, originated in China about 1498. The bristles, hand plucked from the backs of the necks of hogs living in the colder climates of Siberia and China (frigid weathers causes hogs to grow firmer bristles), were fastened into handles of bamboo or bone. Traders to the Orient introduced the Chinese toothbrush to Europeans, who often found hog bristles to be too irritatingly firm.
Toothbrushes made of other animal hair, such as badger, experienced brief vogues in Europe. Most who brushed their teeth (a practice that wasn’t very commonplace) preferred softer fibers such as horsehair instead of pig bristles. 19th century bacteriologist Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs caused the dental profession to realize that all animal hair toothbrushes (which retain moisture) eventually accumulate microscopic bacterial and fungal growth, and that the sharp ends of the bristles piercing the gums could be the source of numerous mouth infections. Sterilizing animal hair in boiling water left the brush bristles too soft to be effective, and those brushes were to expensive to be replaced frequently. The solution to the problem wouldn’t appear until the 1930s.
In the 1930s, the discovery of nylon by Du Pont revolutionized the toothbrush industry. It was impervious to moisture (so it dried thoroughly and resisted bacterial growth) stiff, resilient and resistant to deformation. The first nylon-bristle brush in the US was marketed in 1938 under the name “Dr. West’s Miracle Tuft Toothbrush”.
But the first nylon bristles were too stiff and hard on the gums. In fact they were so destructive that dentists at first resisted recommending them. Then, in the 1950s, Du Pont perfected “soft” nylon which was introduced to the public in the form of the “Park Avenue Toothbrush”. It cost 49 cents (compared to 10 cents for the harder bristle brush). Nylon saved the hogs, or at least their bristles. In 1937 alone, before nylon came along, the US imported 1.5 million pounds of hog bristles for toothbrushes.
The next technological advance came in 1961 when the Squibb Company introduced the first electric toothbrush under the name Broxodent. It had up-and-down brush action and was endorsed by the American Dental Association.
A year later, General Electric designed a cordless electric toothbrush, battery operated and rechargeable. GE scientists tested the brushes on scores of dogs and assured stockholders that “dogs actually liked to have their teeth brushed”, concluding, drolly, that no other dogs in history so aptly fitted the adage “clean as a hound’s tooth.”
Aren’t you glad you live in the 21st Century?