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History Of Oral and Dental Hygiene

Updated on September 18, 2014


Dental hygiene has not always been the way it is now, easy! Some people take this daily routine very lightly and suffer the consequences later. Sooner or later they will end up in the chair with a lot of light shining in their mouth.  Today maintaining healthy teeth and gum is a lot easier than what it use to be back a few thousand years ago. Many of us will be walking around right now with a mouth full of bad odors and in some cases a mouth without teeth if we were still practicing oral hygiene the old way.

In the Beginning...

In the beginning dental hygiene was nonexistent. Around 3500 B.C. people pretty much ate their food and went about their business until the Egyptians invented a form of toothbrush by using a stick frayed at the end to make it soft. To clean the teeth the soft end of the stick was rubbed against the gum and teeth to clean them. This was done without any cleaning material such as our present day toothpaste. In some instances, people used porcupine quill to pick food particles from between their teeth or chewed on a stick to clean them.

Later around the 1400s Chinese made a significant improvement in the design of toothbrushes. These toothbrushes were made from bamboo plants and bristles from the backs of wild boars were used as bristles on the brush. The downside in using this toothbrush was that the bristle were too tough and caused serious bleeding of the gum after using it. To deal with this problem, people eventually replaced the toothbrush bristles with hair from the back of horses, which were much softer than boar bristles.

Another 400 years would go by before a chemical discovery will change the course of evolution for the toothbrush. It was not until 1938, after the discovery of nylon by Dupont in 1937, when Dr. West invented the first toothbrush with nylon bristles. The basic design of the toothbrush has been unchanged since that time.

Need More than a Toothbrush

One of the first example of people using a liquid as a mouthwash to freshen their breath was by rinsing their mouth with a glass of donkey’s milk. The problem was that everyone did not own a donkey. The Romans discovered that ammonia had good anti-bacteria properties, but at that time there was only one known source of it. It was found in urine and the main source of urine was from human. So the Romans used human urine as mouthwash. Incredible. Today ammonia is still one of the ingredients in mouthwash and it has been replaced by alcohol in some brands. The first antiseptic mouthwash did not appear on the market until 1893.

Again, it was the Egyptians who came up with the idea of using something on the toothbrush to improve the cleaning of the teeth and at the same time remove bad breath. They made a powdered mixture consisted of rock salt, mint, and pepper. The mixture was mixed with saliva and applied to the gum. The downside to using this was the same old problem of bleeding gum. Persians also gave it a shot of making toothpaste. They tried making toothpaste from the ashes from burnt goat’s feet. This also led to gum bleeding and widespread diseases. Obviously, a lot of people died from this. In the eighteen-century, the British also tried their hands at making toothpaste. The toothpaste was made of brick dust, crushed china, and nitric acid, yes nitric acid! This toothpaste caused serious erosion of the tooth enamel. I do not think this toothpaste stay around long.

By the nineteen-century, there were several types of toothpaste available. There was a toothpaste in particular made from, believe it or not, charcoal powder. They must had to put up a “No smoking” sign somewhere before brushing. Can you imagine seeing a sign saying, "No smoking brushing teeth is in progress"? A lot of these toothpastes were designed to make the teeth cleaner and whiter and at the same time leave the user with a fresher breath.

Barbers Did More Than Cut Hair

Despite all these developments, oral hygiene and dental hygiene were still in the dark ages. Until the 1800s, there was no such thing as a dentist as we know it. In ancient times people dealt with their dental pains until the tooth either fell out or until it was yanked out by someone or they simply died from the infection. Evidence of dental work such as drilling has been dated as far back as 7000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan. Researchers are not sure whether the drilling was performed for treatment or cosmetic purposes.

By the middle ages, blacksmiths often performed the painful task of extracting a tooth and in most cases the end result was a serious injury to the patient’s jaw where the patient suffered even more pain than before the procedure. They used the familiar forceps and a tool called the “Pelican”. The “Pelican” tool had the shape of pelican’s beak as viewed from the side. By the 1700s these tools were replaced by a tool called a “dental key” modeled after the keys used in doors at that time. In the 1800s if you had a toothache, you went to the doctor or barber. Barbers often used this tool to perform tooth extractions with disastrous results such as broken jaws and soft tissue damages. He would slip this tool over the tooth and twist until it came out. These procedures were quite painful because anesthetics, or painkillers, were not used for dental work until the mid 1800s. In fact Novocaine was first used in 1901 as a local anesthetic in dentistry and before that Cocaine was first used in 1884 as a painkiller. Other chemicals such as ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide were also used for general anesthetic but these were highly flammable.

Old toothbrushes

Better Dental Hygiene at Last

Significant improvements in oral hygiene did not take place until the turn of 20th century. Before this time many mouths were in pretty bad shape. Little was understood about the causes of tooth decay, so few people bother to clean their teeth. There were a lot of brown teeth people walking around then. Many people with discolored or crooked teeth had to live with their imperfections because they could not afford the dental services available. Even wealthy people lost all their teeth by the time they reached middle age. Replacement teeth were still made from wood and were extremely painful. Look at the portrait of George Washington I understand he had wooden teeth. People must not have done that much kissing until very recent times.

The situation began to improve when the first dental school was established in 1840 and the first oral hygiene school was opened in 1913. By 1930, American drugstores were stocked with toothbrushes. People were beginning to take oral hygiene more seriously. And a case of bad breath no longer meant a mouthful of donkey’s milk or human urine. Today, a swig of Listerine and flossing would do the trick in a few minutes.

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© 2010 Melvin Porter


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      Jackson Willis 2 years ago

      It's really interesting to be able to break down the history of things like this. It can really impact the way that you view things. I hope that people will be able to see things like this and have more appreciation for the help they're getting in dentistry. I know that I'll look at it differently from now on.

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      Kody 2 years ago

      It is great to learn more about the history of oral and dental hygiene. My oral health is so important to my level of confidence. I really think that your smile can make all the difference in your appearance.

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      dd3 5 years ago

      Great article. Thanks.

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Dahoglund, I would imagine a lot people up to the early twentieth century probably died from dental abscess simply because there were probably not enough dentists around and because people had to endure much worst pain just to remove the abcess. So they lived with it hoping for the best.

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      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I remeber from an Anthropology class that on of the early prehistoic men died from an abcess tooth infection.