“Who Made That?” is the title of a design article in today’s New York Times Magazine that is about – of all things – the toothbrush! According to the article, toothbrushing began in China during the Middle Ages when people cleaned their teeth using animal bristles. Several centuries later, William Addis carved a bone and stuck it full of bristles while he was in Newgate prison, becoming the first person to patent the toothbrush. Nevertheless, people continued to rub their teeth with a rag even after toothbrushes began to appear in the stores. As late as the 1920’s, many Americans still did not brush their teeth. The early toothbrushes were harsh and it wasn’t until the 1940’s with the advent of synthetics that the bristles were soft enough not to damage the gums. New shapes began to appear. The Reach toothbrush had the angled head, and the company even manufactured a brush with two heads. Toothbrushes even traveled to the moon. So we have gone from the twig to hog-bristles to plastics and today to the electric toothbrush.
Dr. Ben Swanson, the former president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, has over 40,000 artifacts of dental history in his basement storehouse. According to Dr. Swanson there are thousands of toothbrush patents on file. He owns a few hundred different brushes, but he gave up on his dream of owning every kind of toothbrush in existence because “there were so many of them.”