August 13, 2014

The Story of the Toothbrush at the Museum of Everyday Life

I have a vague memory that as a child I had a toothbrush like one of these, with an animal charmingly perched on its handle or case. How wonderful to have this called to mind, something I would never have thought of, as we rarely think about ordinary items in everyday use. The Museum of Everyday Life remedies this situation by looking at a different object each summer and exploring its history and culture. This year it's "Toothbrush From Twig to Bristle in all its Expedient Beauty". Last year's subject was the pencil, which I wrote about here. The museum had exhibits on the safety pin and the match. In the lively introduction to the show––you can read the entire essay at the museum link above––the curators point out:
Arguably one of the most basic and intimate of human tools, we place the toothbrush actually inside our bodies daily.....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.
....we also remember that the rise of the toothbrush and ritual toothbrushing was born and grew hand-in-hand with the ascendancy of refined sugar in the modern diets of rich and imperialist nations. 
That sugar is part of the story relates this exhibition to the recent one by Kara Walker, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby", an installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

This miswak, or chew stick, is a devotional object in the Islamic world. Made from the Salvadora persica tree, it is effective as a toothbrush and related to the earliest known teeth cleaning artifacts, such as Babylonian chew sticks from 3500 BCE. A hadith (teaching) of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the miswak states:
Make a regular practice of Miswak for verily it is the purification for the mouth and a means of the pleasure of the Lord.
The first bristle toothbrush, I learned, was invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (619-907). They probably used the hairs of the cold-climate hog inserted into a bone or bamboo handle.

These are bone handles from early 19th century toothbrushes that were found in a dump in Scotland. It turns out that it took many centuries for the bristle toothbrush to arrive in Europe; previously people cleaned their teeth with rags. The invention is credited to William Gaddis, who in the year 1780, while in jail because of a dispute, came up with the idea of sticking bristles into holes drilled in a bone. The company that William Addis founded still exists: Wisdom Toothbrush.

This is the first US patent for a toothbrush, filed by H.N. Wadsworth.

Anything to get us kids to brush....those animals up above, books about cleanliness, a toothbrush handle in the shape of a bulbous cartoon character....

....and lines of drum majorettes proudly holding toothbrushes instead of batons.

Toothbrush handles came in all sorts of shapes, from a hand grasping the handle.... a clear naked woman.... a red stocking that held a small tube of bubble gum toothpaste. There was even a toothbrush handle in the shape of a penis.

Toothbrushes traveled in lipstick cases.

And unfortunately, toothbrushes had their terrible side: they could be racist....

....and they could be transformed into a bladed weapon, called a shiv, in prisons.

But here, an unknown woman proudly and happily holds up her toothbrush in a photo taken in post war France. She later married the American soldier who took the picture and moved to the US with him. Perhaps to her, the toothbrush symbolized the return to normal life, to routine and to cleanliness, and to peace.


  1. Interesting history. This is something I have never thought much about. I like the handles that are different shapes. I have heard of shivs but had no idea what they looked like. Scary.

  2. You have renewed my respect for this humble inanimate object. I think I'll go brush my teeth.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Lisa and Lauren. It is wonderful, isn't it, to contemplate something usually overlooked?

  4. i found this searching for a toothbrush i gave my dad years ago and he recently wanted another... shape of a woman, self standing. don't remember gifting it and can't find them now. odd