The Humble Toothbrush

This blog focuses on the humble toothbrush: that everyday object that we too easily take for granted. Although many may consider the toothbrush a fairly insignificant and disposable item, it actually has rather an interesting history…

Early forms of the toothbrush have been in existence since about 3000 BC. Some Egyptian tombs have been found to contain ‘toothsticks’ demonstrating that cleaning teeth was clearly considered an important activity thousands of years ago.

It wasn’t until 700 AD that bristle toothbrushes were invented in China. These toothbrushes comprised of handles made of bone or bamboo and while bristles were fashioned from the hairs from the back of a hog’s neck!

 

Image 1: Toothbrush with horsehair bristles, London, England,1870-1920. Credit: Science Museum, London, CC BY.

 

Image 1 shows two toothbrushes that are part of a collection from the Science Museum in London. Both are made by the firm Savory and Moore. Savory and Moore was actually a dispensing chemist, and was the only retail outlet allowed in the district of Belgravia at the time. It served the royal family so it would be reasonable to assume that the owner of these toothbrushes was fairly wealthy. The toothbrush handles are made of ivoride, whilst the bristles are horsehair.

Nylon bristles were first used for toothbrushes in 1938. This new form of toothbrush was rapidly adopted due to growing concerns about oral hygiene during the Second World War. Indeed, the first truly ‘electric’ toothbrush was invented at the end of the 1930s. However, it was deemed ineffective and so sales never really took off. 1954 saw the introduction of ‘Broxodent’, the first usable electric toothbrush. However, this toothbrush was fairly unsafe given its high voltage and the fact that it was typically used in the bathroom where the presence of water further enhanced its electrocution danger! It wasn’t until 1961 that a cordless and rechargeable model of electric toothbrush became available, manufactured by General Electric – this sold much better. The electric toothbrushes that we have today have come a long way: they run on a lower voltage, have improved battery life and are rechargeable.

And the history of toothpaste? Well that’s another story..!

 

 

Further reading

  • ‘The History of the Electric Toothbrush,’ accessed 4/8/19. Available at: https://www.electricteeth.co.uk/the-history-of-the-electric-toothbrush/
  • ‘Prison, Suicide, & the Cold-Climate Hog (the sordid history of the toothbrush,’ The Museum of Everyday Life, accessed 4/8/19. Available at: http://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/previous-exhibitions/toothbrush-from-twig-to-bristle-in-all-its-expedient-beauty/a-visual-history-of-the-toothbrush

 

Lucy Havard

Posted in instruments, medical history.

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