Toothbrushes seem to be simple objects at first glance: bristles on a stick. Modern advances in technology that make brushing your teeth easier and more effective elaborate on the idea, adding mechanical and electronic components to aid in keeping your teeth and gums healthy. As ubiquitous as toothbrushes are, though, they didn’t always look the way they do now. Throughout history, oral care implements have taken different forms — some of which seem downright outrageous by today’s standards.
Ancient Chewing Sticks
Although humans have been cleaning their teeth since the dawn of time, the earliest known teeth-cleaning implement is a chewing stick from ancient Babylon dating to 3500 BCE. Found in a burial site, the stick was frayed on one end and sharpened into a toothpick on the other.
The Babylonians weren’t the only ones to make use of this rudimentary toothbrush, however. Extant examples from Egypt date back to 3000 BCE, and Senegalese examples date to similar times.
Although chewing sticks have different names in different cultures and are made from many different types of wood — the Romans, for example, called them mastic, while the Japanese referred to them as koyoji — ancient Arabs were the biggest proponents of oral hygiene.
The sticks used by the ancient Arabs were referred to as miswak or meswak, a name that’s still in use today, and they get a mention in ancient texts, poetry, literature and philosophy. Cross-cultural spread during the golden age of Islam contributed to the popularity of the chewing stick, and the Salvadora persica tree was intentionally cultivated and harvested for its branches.
The First Toothbrush
The Chinese took a different approach to oral care. Rather than stay with chewing sticks, those during the Tang dynasty — from 619 to 907 CE — opted to care for their teeth with hog bristles stuck in handles made of bamboo or bone. Following this golden age of innovation, not much changed. A traveling Zen master from Japan noted a similar construction later on in 1223, when he wrote of an ox-bone-handled brush with horsehair bristles used to clean teeth.
The tooth brush and its use spread to Europe with travel and trade, and was in common use by the 1600s — the first recognized mention of the word “toothbrush” itself occurred in an autobiography from 1690, mentioning the purchase of a toothbrush. Most brushes were manufactured in China using centuries-old techniques.
The first mass-produced toothbrush is believed to be an interdental brush created by William Addis in 1770. He was bored and in jail on a charge of rioting when he decided to create a brush from bone and bristle, which he then sealed with glue. Upon his release, he founded Wisdom Toothbrushes, a company that still exists today.
The mass manufacture of toothbrushes boomed throughout the 19th century, with the first U.S. patent filed in 1857 and the first mass production in the United States occurring in 1885. These brushes were similar to their predecessors and had many of the same problems: mainly that boar bristles didn’t dry well and harbored bacteria.
By the early 20th century, the wood, bone and ivory handles of toothbrushes were starting to give way to synthetic materials like cellulose and nylon. The first all-synthetic toothbrush went on sale in early 1938.
Today we have a variety of toothbrushes to choose from. Bamboo and natural fibers have made a huge comeback, while electric models are also popular. Even the miswak is still in use today, with clinical studies finding it nearly as effective as toothbrushes. With so many choices to pick from for cleaning your teeth, it can be tough to choose a brush that fits your needs and lifestyle. There isn’t one single right toothbrush: the best toothbrush is the one that you find easiest to use regularly and allows you to brush properly.
How We Can Help
The office of Drs. Krieger and Hur can help you figure out what type of toothbrush might suit your needs, and that starts with an oral exam and cleaning. To book your appointment, give us a call at (201) 560-0606 or click here to send us an email. During your appointment, we can chat about brushes, offer recommendations based on your unique dental health needs and give some guidance on what to look for in a good brush to help your smile look and feel its very best.