A brief history of the toothbrush

A brief history of the toothbrush

Mass production of toothbrushes is an achievement attributable to the development of plastics. It goes without saying that we human beings were already interested in dental hygiene beforehand, however.

The practice of cleaning our teeth goes back as far as progressive cultures in ancient times:
Around 5,000 BC, Greeks and Romans used cleaning pastes to remove plaque that was made from such materials as animal hooves, bones and egg shells. Toothpicks made from twigs were also used. Powdered charcoal and tree bark were used to get rid of bad breath.
Around 3,500 BC, the Babylonians used a piece of wood the size of a pencil taken from the branch of a tree to chew on. Chewing caused the fibres at one end to separate and form a kind of brush, as which the stick was then used. Its other, pointed end acted as a toothpick. Similar findings have been made in Egyptian graves from the time around 3,000 BC too. The chewing stick is now considered to be the earliest predecessor of the toothbrush that has been discovered to date.
The first toothbrush with bristles similar to those we are familiar with today was introduced in China around 1500. It had the shape of a brush: coarse bristles taken from the neck of domestic pigs were attached to a handle made of bone or bamboo. This original toothbrush design has not basically changed in any fundamental way to this day.
Europeans were sceptical about the toothbrushes imported from China, because the coarse boar bristles made people’s gums bleed. The soft alternative made from horsehair was not accepted either, however: the French doctor Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761), who is considered to be the father of modern dentistry, talked disparagingly about horsehair toothbrushes – which he described as ineffective because they were much too soft – in his textbook “Le chirurgien dentiste or traité des dents” that appeared in 1728. He recommended rubbing one’s teeth and gums off daily with a natural sponge instead. Toothpicks made, for example, from quills, silver or copper, were preferred in Europe at this time anyway.
Christoph von Hellwig (1633-1721), the town medical officer in Bad Tennstedt/Thuringia, developed a toothbrush around 1700. There is a toothbrush monument in his honour in the town today.
Only the wealthy could afford toothbrushes until the late 18th century. This situation did not change until English manufacturers started to produce them in sizable numbers from cow bones and bristles obtained from cows, pigs and – later on – badgers too. William Addis (1734-1808), a businessman from London, set up the first of these production facilities in 1780. This was preceded by a prison sentence: Addis had been arrested for disturbance of the peace and came to the conclusion while he was forced to spend time behind bars that there must be a better way to clean one’s teeth than with salted rags. So he took an animal bone, drilled holes in it and glued animal bristles in the holes. This invention was to make him rich – and ensure that his three sons had a lucrative business too. When the bacteriological era began in the 19th century, awareness developed that toothbrushes could be a very effective way to spread bacteria. Nothing was to change here, however, until toothbrushes with nylon bristles were introduced in 1938. The latter were smooth and, in addition, were not hollow, so that they did not become waterlogged.