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Updated on January 10, 2017

Toothpicks are...

...small, narrow sliver of wood, plastic or similar material, used to remove food or other matter between the teeth.

Toothpicks long preceded the toothbrush (which was probably invented by the Chinese) as an essential personal implement.

The Evolution of the Toothpick

Sir Leonard Woolley discovered at Ur a toilet-set consisting of a pair of tweezers, an ear-scoop and a toothpick which were attached by their ends to a ring. The instruments were of gold, and they were kept in a conical gold case. The approximate date of this toilet-set was 3500 B.C. Later in time, but used by races which were still without written records, are toilet-sets of bronze or silver found at various sites in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, in which the individual articles are similarly attached to a ring, or sometimes to a stout fibula (a large safety pin) which was fixed to the outer garment. From the Crimea comes a gold combination instrument; one end, shaped like a tiny dagger, forms the toothpick; the flattened ear-scoop at the other end is separated from the toothpick by a 'handle' in the form of a female figure.

The ancient Chinese also had toothpicks; these were in the form of bronze pendants, running to a hook at the lower end. The ancient Hebrews did not use specially manufactured articles for this purpose, but in the Talmud we find references to the qesem, which was a simple splinter of wood.

Frequent references to the use of toothpicks occur in the classical Greek and Roman authors. It is probable that the Greeks did not use specially designed toothpicks, but they habitually employed splinters of wood or quills. When possible the wood was from the mastix tree (Pistacia lentiscus), which was a native of the island of Chios and gave also a resin used as chewing-gum. From Greece the use of this wood for toothpicks spread to Rome, and from there throughout the classical world. The poet Martial refers several times to toothpicks under the name dentiscalpia, and those which were made of mastix wood were called lentisci. So great was the demand for the wood that the tree had to be imported to Italy, and large mastix groves were planted on the coast north of Naples. The mastix tree is peculiarly associated with the teeth, and its wood is still used for toothpicks. In Imperial Rome other substances were also used for this purpose. Quills of various kinds were employed. For example, in his famous Natural History Pliny says that picking the teeth with the quill of a vulture makes the breath sour, while the use of a porcupine quill makes the teeth firm. In the Roman world toothpicks were also made of metal, and there are references to individual instruments made of silver. During the Later Empire toilet-sets of bronze were frequently used, and included toothpicks. As elsewhere, the set of instruments was suspended from the dress by means of a fibula.

Not much is known about the toothpick in the Middle Ages. The celebrated physician Johannes Arculanus, writing in the second half of the fifteenth century, emphasized the use of a toothpick after every meal to clear particles from between the teeth, but he saw no need to recommend any appliance other than a splinter of wood. But already at that time custom decreed that every well-dressed individual should carry a toilet-set, or at least a toothpick, attached to his person. Some portraits show the toothpick suspended round the neck by a fine chain. A celebrated sixteenth-century necklace of precious stones shows an ornamental toothpick attached to it by a chain. These toothpicks were sometimes straight, but were not infrequently curved. They were sometimes combined with an ear-scoop, but often formed part of a toilet-set, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were made of gold or silver, and incorporated not only an ear-scoop, but also a knife, fork, spoon and a hunting whistle. Individual toothpicks often took the form of grotesque human figures, or represented various animals. For example, in the figure of a lizard the tail might form the toothpick, while the head, set on an elongated neck, formed the ear-scoop.

In the seventeenth century the individual items of a toilet-set were often hinged together at one end, much as a knife with several blades is today. They included not only a toothpick and ear-scoop, but also tweezers, and sometimes manicure instruments. From this period the toothpick became less and less a decorative object, and the emphasis came to be placed on the case in which the toothpick was carried, either as an individual object or as part of a toilet-set. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these cases were made of gold, silver, ivory or less precious materials, and they were often heavily decorated. The introduction of the steel pen (see Pen) made it necessary to find an alternative market for the goose quill, and hence the increasing use to which sharpened quills were put as toothpicks. Both quills and mastix wood toothpicks were cheap, and a number of them could therefore be placed on the table, used and then discarded. Hence, from the artistic angle, emphasis now fell on the container which was placed on the table. The nineteenth century shows numerous examples of figures of men, beasts and birds wrought in silver, into which a supply of toothpicks could be stuck to combine artistically with the whole. But with the increasing use of the tooth-brush in the nineteenth century the toothpick suffered an inevitable decline.

The Rise of the Toothbrush

Toothbrushes may be regarded as of two kinds: the ancient type - the fibre-pencil - in which the fibres were a continuation of the handle, and were indeed formed from it; and the modern type in which the bristles are inserted into the handle at right angles to it. A fairly early example of the fibre-pencil is the miswak of the Mohammedan world. This was frequently made of roots or twigs of the ardk, a wood which is rich in sodium bicarbonate. A portion of the root or branch is stripped of some of its bark at one end, the whole is soaked in water, and the stripped end is beaten until the fibres separate to form a fine brush. The used portion can thus be renewed daily, and the wood contains an aromatic juice which has an astringent effect on the gums. The miswak was used by Mohammed himself as a religious ritual, which is enjoined on all his followers. A similar form of cleansing stick is found throughout Africa and in many other parts of the world. Susruta, the great Indian physician of the sixth century B.C., gave detailed instructions for preparing fibre-pencils and for cleaning the teeth. 'A man', he wrote, 'should leave his bed early in the morning and brush his teeth. The tooth-brush should be made of a fresh twig of a tree or a plant... twelve fingers long and like the small finger in girth ...The twig of a plant possessed of any of the four tastes as sweet, bitter, astringent and pungent should alone be collected and used.' The brush was smeared with a tooth-paste compounded with honey and oil and other ingredients. Susruta explained that cleaning the teeth removed bad smells from the mouth, gave men relish for their food and cheerfulness of mind and inclined them to religion.

Cleansing of the teeth was recommended by the Greek and Roman medical writers, but the means employed consisted of the finger, a piece of cloth or a small sponge, with which various substances were applied to the teeth. The fibre-pencil again reappeared in Europe in the post-Renaissance period. For example, Fauchard, the French writer whose great work on dentistry (1746) is regarded as the foundation of the subject, advised a fibre-pencil made of a portion of the root of marshmallow for cleaning the teeth. The preparation of his fibre-pencil was a very complicated process which involved the use of many substances, including wine or brandy, and took ten days.

From the earliest times mouthwashes, tooth powders and pastes have been used to clean the teeth. The substances employed are too numerous to mention. Honey was always an important ingredient. Even as late as 1746 Fauchard gave instructions for making pastes and powders which contained many substances, such as pumice, coral, mother-of-pearl, crab's eyes, dragon's blood, calcined alum and various essential oils. Later tooth powders consisted of precipitated chalk and powdered orris-root, with in some cases charcoal or pumice, and flavouring agents. The paste is made from the powder by the addition of honey or glucose syrup.

The modern tooth-brush is regarded as having been invented by the Chinese, and a seventeenth-century Chinese encyclopaedia gives the date as 1498. The bristles were inserted at right angles to the handle. Since then there has been little change in this important article. This brush was introduced to Europe about the second half of the eighteenth century, and was followed by the decline not only of the fibre-pencil, but also of the toothpick.


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