A Complete History of Toothbrushes: A Journey to Brighter Smiles
Your toothbrush is one of the last things you use at night and one of the first things you grab when you go on vacation. Whether you’ve splashed the cash on the latest high-powered rechargeable brush or you’re relying on an old school plastic alternative, toothbrushes are an essential tool for modern living.
But believe it or not, it’s not just a modern necessity. Many of our ancestors understood the need for good dental hygiene and invented their own version of the toothbrush.
In this guide, we’ll look at the history of toothbrushes and show you just how old these apparent “modern” inventions are.
The Very First Toothbrushes
Our ancestors didn’t have access to refined sugar, chips, soda, and other dental-destroying foodstuffs, but they weren’t immune to tooth decay and other dental problems. A report from the British Dental Journal noted that ancient Egyptians regularly suffered from tooth wear, which is said to have been “so excessive that it resulted in pulpal exposure”.
Abscesses were also common and while cavities were much less frequent than they are today, they still appeared from time to time, and in an age before antibiotics, stainless steel, X-rays, and skilled dentists, they could be life-changing.
We know all of this because many well-preserved skeletal remains were left behind. The hot and dry climate created the perfect preservation environment, and Egyptians also had a rather helpful habit of mummifying their dead, allowing modern archaeologists to study them and better understand how the world worked back then.
It’s not just skeletal remains that survived, either.
Many early toothbrushes were so valuable to their owners that they were buried with them or left alongside their remains. Known as “chewsticks” and popular with the Babylonians, as well as the Egyptians, these tools were little more than frayed sticks.
They were made by using a rock to whittle away at the end of a stick, fraying it and creating something that resembled a toothbrush or even a small paintbrush. The other end would then be sharpened to a point.
They would chew on the frayed end and then use the other end to pick pieces of food out of their mouths. Fragrant sticks were often used to impart strong flavors and these were also occasionally combined with rudimentary toothpaste.
These brushes date back to 3,500 BC, which means that humans were thinking about their dental health before the construction of the Great Pyramids, and they remained in use throughout the Bronze Age.
The Spread of Ideas
It’s easy to imagine great civilizations as something that happened in isolation. When many people think about the Egyptians, they think about a civilization far more advanced than any other, a rose among thorns. When they were building pyramids and constructing great monuments to their immortal gods, everyone else was living in caves.
But while they were certainly advanced, they weren’t alone.
After all, Egypt’s power would have been pretty limited if it didn’t have anyone to conquer or trade with. Great empires rarely exist in isolation.
Vast trading routes were established during the Bronze Age and these connected many great powers of the time, including the mighty Minoan civilization, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, and eventually, the Mycenaeans.
Empires appeared and disappeared; goods and ideas were traded, and this meant that those early toothbrushes, along with other medical marvels, spread across North Africa, Asia, and modern-day Greece and Turkey.
Bronze Age peoples guzzled huge quantities of wine, eat plentiful game, and had access to lots of fruits, seeds, and honey. They needed to keep their teeth clean and their breaths fresh, and these chew sticks, along with the many other variations created during this time, were essential for that purpose.
Toothpicks and Toothpaste
In addition to chewsticks, toothpicks became a go-to cleaning tool for the majority of early human civilizations, including the Greeks and Romans. A toothbrush may seem like a common-sense invention to our modern minds, but in an age before plastic, synthetic bristles, and even the idea of “brushing” your teeth, it was less obvious.
The same can’t be said for toothpicks, however. When you feel a bacteria film on your teeth and you don’t have a toothbrush to hand, your instinct is to rinse out your mouth with water or alcohol or even apply some paste to your finger and scrub.
It’s pretty much the same response that our ancestors had. Toothpaste came before toothbrushes. Often available in powder form, they would be made from crushed shells or bone, along with plant extracts. The user would simply apply these powders to their teeth, wet their fingers, and then rub.
They would give them a good scrub, rinse out their mouths, and leave with fresh breath.
They had different diets to us and their attitudes toward dental health were also different, so it wasn’t something they did twice a day, nor was it something they devoted a lot of time to. In fact, many consumed a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and water, and such a diet promotes good oral health without any kind of invention.
It is a different story with toothpicks, though.
If you have something stuck between your teeth, and you don’t have any toothpicks to hand, your first instinct is to look for a tool that can help. And if you can’t find one, you fashion one yourself, whether that means ripping and rolling a piece of paper/card or breaking off a chunk of wood or plastic.
Early humans had the same response, and because they had a diet rich in meat and fish, they were no strangers to trapped food.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and so toothpicks have been around a lot longer than toothbrushes and toothpaste.
We know that the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used these tools and crafted them from wood, ivory, and precious metals. We also have reason to believe that prehistoric humans used these simple tools.
If so, they would have been made of wood or other simple materials and these would have long since decomposed. However, archaeologists have found tell-tale scrapings in prehistoric human teeth that suggest toothpicks may have been in use for tens of thousands of years.
Toothpicks are also used by chimpanzees, so there’s a chance they have been in use for even longer than that!
Early Chinese Toothbrushes
Just like many other inventions, the first real spark in the invention of the toothbrush came from the east, where the Chinese empire was experiencing a veritable golden age under the Ming Dynasty.
This is the same dynasty and the same period of history responsible for ship rudders, paper, and even printing, but one of its most important inventions was the bristled toothbrush.
The first toothbrush was actually invented under the Tang Dynasty, when boar hairs were slotted into bone or bamboo bases to create something that resembled a modern brush. However, it was under the Ming Dynasty that things really took off, with toothbrushes being mass-produced and becoming popular throughout the east.
The idea of using animal hair might sound flawed (and disgusting), but the animal in question was the Siberian hog, and the hairs were often taken from the back of its neck. They were thick, coarse, and just as strong as many modern synthetic bristles. They were also cleaned before installation, and in an age before indoor plumbing and germ theory, few users considered them to be disgusting.
In fact, the only issue that users had with these brushes is that the hairs were often too coarse, making the brush difficult and unpleasant to use.
In later years, horse hair was used and these brushes were produced en masse by the end of the 18th century. Traders steadily introduced them to Europeans, who were also being introduced to sugar and had some pretty deplorable dental hygiene habits.
A change was needed, and expensive tools imported from China weren’t enough.
That’s when William Addis stepped in and created the first modern toothbrush.
The Modern Toothbrush
William Addis is often credited with mass-producing the first toothbrush back in 1780. For some historical perspective, sugar had been a popular commodity for many decades up to this point, accounting for around 20% of all European imports.
The first refined sugar processing machines were still a couple of decades away, but the world was steadily getting hooked on the sweet stuff and they didn’t have a practical way of dealing with it.
The rich had access to horse hair toothbrushes and even Napoleon is said to have used one of these, but the poor were resigned to using rags. They would wet the rag and then add basic abrasives like salt or soot. It was effective, but also unpleasant and unhygienic, especially when you consider that these rags may have been used by multiple members of the same family.
In 1770, Addis was jailed for causing a riot. He was tasked with using one of these rags and found the experience to be ineffective. In response, he fashioned a homemade toothbrush using a bone and tufts of bristles. Upon his release, he turned his product into a profitable business known as Wisdom Toothbrushes.
Addis died in 1808, by which point Wisdom was manufacturing brushes for customers across Europe. In fact, Wisdom is still mass-producing toothbrushes over 200 years later and remains one of the UK’s biggest manufacturers of manual toothbrushes, toothpicks, and interdentals.
The United States didn’t start mass production of toothbrushes until the latter part of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the Second World War that their use became common practice. By this point, synthetic materials were used in place of bone and animal hair.
Nylon bristles were softer, but they were also more hygienic, and this switch was fundamental in changing consumer habits.
During the Second World War, ration packs included items to help soldiers with their daily hygiene rituals. These differed from country to country, but many contained chewing gum, disinfectant wipes, toothpicks, toothpaste, and a toothbrush.
It’s hard to imagine front-line soldiers devoting much time to their dental hygiene, but they were still young men, they cared about their appearance and their health, and most of them believed that they would make it back in one piece.
They wanted to maintain their pearly whites, and so they brushed regularly, and when they returned home, they influenced their friends and family members to do the same.
By the 1950s, toothbrushes could be found in most US households and everyone understood the importance of regular brushing and good dental hygiene.
When Was the Electric Toothbrush Invented?
The first electric toothbrush patent was filed way back in 1937, when many manual brushes still used animal hair. Known as the Motodent, it closely resembled a modern-day electric toothbrush, although it was pretty hefty and expensive.
A couple of years later, the Broxodent was launched by a Swiss company known as Broxo S.A. and became a cheaper and more convenient option. However, these brushes weren’t designed for everyday consumers. Their purpose was to assist users with limited motor skills and to provide high-level, professional cleaning.
In the 1960s, General Electric patented an automatic electric toothbrush, one that didn’t need to be plugged into a wall and had its own built-in power supply. What should have been a big leap forward for the company and the industry on the whole, turned out to be a disappointing flop.
The General Electric automatic toothbrush was heavy and bulky. Its batteries were also sealed inside the device and as soon as they lost their charge, the entire unit needed to be discarded and replaced. To make matters worse, the batteries, while rechargeable, had a very short lifespan, making for an expensive and awkward way to brush your teeth.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, and the launch of the ultrasonic toothbrush, that this market received the shot in the arm that it so desperately needed.
These brushes initially worked exclusively on ultrasound, a series of acoustic pressure waves that are inaudible to the human ear but can help to remove plaque. Sonic vibrators were added soon afterward and most modern electric toothbrushes combine both sonic vibration and ultrasound to remove plaque quickly and effectively.
Although the many different features of these brushes are often dismissed as little more than marketing gimmicks, they actually serve an important purpose and change the way the brush should be used.
For instance, the term “electric” toothbrush is often used to refer to three different types of brush:
- Electric: A somewhat old-school variety of toothbrush that rotates at an average of 5,000 movements per minute.
- Sonic: A faster alternative that typically covers around 30,000 movements per minute.
- Ultrasonic: Relies on sound vibrations and emits at least 192,000,000 movements a minute.
Some of these brushes should be used just like a manual toothbrush, but others should be moved slowly over the teeth, allowing the vibration to do its thing.
For instance, it’s often recommended that you move an electric and sonic toothbrush in the same way you would with a manual, ensuring that every inch of the tooth is covered by moving in circular patterns. With ultrasonic brushes, such an action is not required.
What Does the Future Hold?
The idea of using a toothbrush that vibrates 192,000,000 times per minute is quite astonishing. It’s a long way from the chewsticks used by Ancient Egyptians and (arguably) it’s even more of a marvel when compared to the rags used during the Industrial Age.
It took us thousands of years to go from frayed sticks and homemade powders to super-powered brushes and chemical pastes, but where do we go from here?
In a way, toothbrush technology might actually go backward, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Estimates suggest that 1 billion toothbrushes are discarded every year in the United States. A lot of these are made from non-biodegradable plastics that add an astonishing 50 million pounds of waste to the nation’s landfills.
Even if everyone switched to electric brushes, the issue would persist. After all, while you hold onto an electric brush for much longer than a manual one, you still need to change the head several times a year, and when you eventually get rid of it, the additional components (charger, batteries, plastic casing from all those replaceable heads) means you’re leaving a fairly sizeable footprint.
As a result, many consumers are now switching to bamboo toothbrushes. They’re cheap, disposable, and sustainable, and they won’t remain in landfills for centuries to come.
We may also see brushes that provide a truly automatic experience, allowing you brush your teeth with minimal effort and in very little time.
A few such brushes have already appeared on Kickstarter and you can also find them in abundance on AliExpress, but they are rarely as effective or “revolutionary” as they claim, and more often than not, they are unhygienic and unpleasant.
Still, the same critiques were levied at early animal hair toothbrushes and we eventually found a way to make them more effective and hygienic.
Who knows what the future will hold for these simple tools, we just hope it doesn’t take another 500 hundred years for those changes to occur.