A (Tooth) Brush through History

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Sitting in a cup, holder or drawer in almost every American home is the humble toothbrush. A twice-daily ritual of plastic and bristles, we use them to clean our teeth and maintain our dental health. The variations of a toothbrush today are staggering. You can find one in any size or shape, any character or color, all sold conveniently in stores across the country. But where does this quotidian tool come from? And how did brushing our teeth become the habit it is today?

The Proto-Toothbrush: Wooden Chewing Stick

There is a proto-toothbrush in a tool called a chewing stick, also referred to as a miswak. Dating as far back as 3500 BCE in Babylon and as far forward as today, chewing sticks are the branches or stems of often aromatic plants like licorice, lemon, orange, neem, mango or arak. The sticks’ barks contain antibacterial components to fight mouth bacteria, while the motion of chewing on them breaks down plaque and cleans out teeth (think of a dental chew for a dog). The woody strains of the stick end up creating a bundle of thick pseudo-bristles at the end, almost like the fraying of a rope, which can be useful in cleaning tighter areas of the mouth.

Arak, specifically is still widely used, alongside contemporary dental care in the Middle East and other places with large Muslim populations, as chewing the plant is a devotional cleaning practice. Arak has been shown to protect against stress-induced ulcers and ethanol-induced ulcers, as well as reduce plaque and bacterial growth.

Evolving Toothbrush: The Asian, European and American Versions

The invention of the toothbrush as we conceive it can be dated back to the Tang Dynasty (619-907) of China. The brush had bristles made from coarse boar hair set into a handle of ivory or bamboo. The French were the first to popularize its use in the West during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were the first country to host a dentist to promote teeth care, rather than the barber’s job of teeth pulling. From France, the custom began to spread among the upper class until, in 1780, the Englishman William Addis tweaked the tool. Europeans preferred softer horse-hair bristles, likely because of both comfort and supply. Rumors say that Addis was struck by the idea after being imprisoned for rioting. And while Europe began to get with the program, with toothbrushes being mass-produced by the 1840s, America lagged behind by about 70 years.

It wasn’t until 1857 that H.N. Wadsworth filed the first American patent for the toothbrush, the difference-making the product patentable being the unique slope-shaped curve of the bristles. After the invention of nylon by the Dupont Chemical Company in 1935, bristles transitioned to being made from hair to the synthetic fabric, due to nylon’s resistance to bacteria growth as an inorganic substance. The modern manual toothbrush was now mass-produced in the states, though the practice of brushing one’s teeth wasn’t popularized until the American soldiers’ return from WWII. Toothbrushing was a part of military hygiene, and it began to stick in everyday American life.

The Electric Toothbrush: From Ultrasound to Sonic Cleaning

The electric toothbrush is a much more modern invention. It was invented by Swiss Dr. Phillipe Guy Woog in 1954. It was called Broxodent, and it debuted in France before being introduced by the American Dental Association in 1959. The tool’s initial intention was to be used by people with limited mobility or patients in orthodontic brackets. In 1992 the first ultrasound toothbrush was invented, called Ultrasonex, and solely used ultrasound to clean the teeth. Recent models have reintroduced sonic cleaning alongside ultrasound to improve the cleanliness of the teeth.

Give Us a Call!

The toothbrush has come a long way since its impetus and remains today in forms stoically ancient and ever-changingly modern. So, the next time you go to scrub your teeth, take a good look at your brush and know the long road it took to get there! If you have any questions or concerns regarding your smile, Dr. Sara Bekyan and her team at Westtown Dental Care in West Chester, Pennsylvania, invite you to call 484-887-0777 for more information.