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The History of the Toothbrush

If you are like most people, you use your toothbrush twice a day without giving too much thought to how toothbrushes came to be. After all, toothbrushes are very simple devices that seem to have been around forever - cavity repair has always been a big deal, and toothbrushes can help prevent tooth decay. You might be surprised to learn that modern toothbrushes are the result of a long evolutionary process that has lasted for thousands of years. 

Dentist in Mentor OH Describes the Evolution of Toothbrushes Throughout the Years

Historians think that the Babylonians and Egyptians used “chew sticks,” created from frayed twigs, between 3500 – 3000 BCE. Chew sticks are still popular in some parts of Africa, in the rural Southern US, and in certain Islamic sects. 

Researchers believe the Chinese devised thefirst natural-bristle toothbrush in the 1400s, using bone or bamboo for the handles and pig’s hair for the bristles. More specifically, many say that Emperor Hongzhi of Ming Dynasty China introduced the forerunner of the modern toothbrush in 1498. Sea traders brought these toothbrushes to Europe, where they became popular in the 17th Century. The Europeans made a few changes, such as trading pig’s hair for horse hair or even feather bristles. 

William Addis came up with the idea for the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1770, as he sat in an English prison for causing a riot. While serving his sentence, he brushed his teeth like all the other inmates – by rubbing a rag covered in soot and salt over his teeth – and decided that there must be a better way to take care of his smile. Addis drilled small holes into an animal bone and talked prison guards into giving him some bristles, which he tied into tufts, passed through the holes, and secured with glue. 

Upon his release, Addis began mass producing his toothbrushes under the company name Wisdom Toothbrushes. Their toothbrushes featured a handle carved from cattle bone and bristles made from pig hair or a cow’s tail. He died a wealthy man and left the company to his son, who began exporting the toothbrushes to the United States in the 1880s. 

Quick to embrace modern manufacturing technology, Wisdom began using injection molding to make toothbrushes by the start of World War II. Other inventors and companies joined them. Dr. Meyer Rhein designed the first 3-row bristle brush in 1844, for example. It featured large tufts of serrated bristles arranged into three rows and held in a bone handle. 

Wallace H. Carothers, chemist at Du Pont Laboratories, forever changed toothbrushes when he invented nylon in 1937. The company introduced the world’s first nylon-bristled toothbrush, known as Dr West’s Miracle Toothbrush, in 1938. Prior to this innovation, toothbrush bristles were still made from the stiff, coarse hairs taken from animals. 

Nylon bristles provided a number of advantages over animal hair bristles. Making bristles with nylon filaments lowered production costs, for example, and allowed manufacturers to control the texture of the bristles. Nylon also allowed manufacturers to improve the performance of the bristles by shaping the filaments and varying their diameter. 

Using animal hair bristles had a number of disadvantages. It often fell out of the handle, for example, so the toothbrushes didn’t last long. What’s more, animal hair bristles don’t dry well, so they are vulnerable to bacterial growth. 

World War I shaped the evolution of the toothbrush. Bone became a valuable commodity, as the need for soup bones for food greatly outweighed the need for toothbrush handles. Toothbrush manufacturers quickly pivoted to handles made of celluloid, which is a type of plastic that manufacturers inject into molds and cool in a specific shape. Celluloid soon became the material of choice when it came to toothbrushes. 

In 1899, Britain was recruiting troops to serve in the Boer War and the men who showed up were malnourished, stunted – and had bad teeth. The Army worried that poor oral health would prevent the soldiers from fighting as well as they could, so officials began to provide toothbrushes and instructions on how to use them. Officials also began giving out toothbrushes to low-income children to improve the oral health habits through the generations. 

American soldiers began to pick up these habits while serving overseas, and they brought their toothbrushes (and their newfound dazzling smiles!) home after the war. They pass their strict toothbrushing habits onto their children, thereby bringing toothbrushes into the mainstream. 

More than 3000 toothbrush patents exist worldwide, creating a virtually endless selection of brands, styles, and colors. Today’s toothbrushes may be customized to fit an individual’s needs, with a wide variety of bristle designs, textures, brush head size, and other variables. 

Where can I get information on toothbrushes from a dentist near me?

For more information on toothbrushes through the years, consult with our cosmetic dentist in Mentor OH.