A brush with history

By Deborah Warner
A small yellow tin container decorated with the illustration of a suited man brushing his teeth with a toothbrush. Illustrated ribbons posed next to the man say "Sozodont for cleansing" and "Powder the teeth."

Consider the toothbrush—so small and yet so important for health and happiness—and how it came into our lives. The earliest examples were likely made in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), and they can still be seen at institutions like the Shanghai Museum. In time, thanks in large part to itinerant merchants and monks, news of this Asian technology arrived in the West, with some stops along the way. Thomas Hearne, an English antiquary, noted that making “clean their teeth with a brush” was a ritual part of Muslim post-prayer ablutions.

Although French men and women were likely no more fastidious than other Europeans, France was the first country to host a dentist (rather than a simple tooth puller) who cared for teeth and promoted dental hygiene. In 1649, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris (and avoiding the revolution back home) mentioned “little brushes for making cleane of the teeth, most covered with sylver and some few with gold and sylver Twiste.” Nicholas Lemery, a French chemist who served as apothecary to the King, recommended rubbing one’s teeth with dentifrice [a powder using for cleaning] and a rough brush, and then rinsing them with claret. Interest in dental hygiene was becoming more common across Europe. Samuel Pepys, a student at Cambridge University late in the century, bought a “bundle of tooth-brushes (second hand, a bargain)” at a local sale. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, an early naturalist in the Netherlands, used toothpicks, a cloth, and salt to clean his teeth after having examined some of his tooth gunk with one of his tiny but powerful microscopes.

A personal hygiene device opened to show various implements, including a toothbrush. One end of the device is decorated with a tiny carving of a dog with a green collar.
Ornate personal hygiene device made of bone. Components include a toothbrush, two toothpicks, a nail file, and a small spoon for removing wax from the ear. (MG.M-02996)
A weathered folding toothbrush
Folding toothbrush in a case that may be whale ivory. (MG.312617.03)

The Compleat Housewife, a popular book first published in London in 1741, included a recipe for an “admirable Powder for the Teeth.” It also advised using a cloth on the finger, as “The too frequent use of the tooth-brush makes the teeth become long and deformed, altho’ it be a good instrument, and the moderate use of it proper enough.” A similar recipe can be found in Martha Washington’s manuscript Cookery Book.

Advertisements for dentists and dental products appeared in several newspapers published in the British colonies of North America. One in The South Carolina Gazette (Aug. 26, 1756) offered toothbrushes, “galenical medicines,” surgical instruments, and Greenough’s tincture for the teeth—for which Thomas Greenough, of London, had obtained a British patent in 1743. Another advertisement in The Pennsylvania Gazette (Nov. 27, 1760) was posted by John Wilkins, a Philadelphia craftsman who made toothbrushes, scrubbing brushes, and such, and who offered ready money for hog bristles.

It is clearly easier to look into the lives of those who were wealthy and prominent than those who were not, especially when there is access to correspondence, financial accounts, and diaries. And so, we know that George Washington (who eventually lost all his teeth) bought toothbrushes in Williamsburg and in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson asked a colleague in London to purchase “½ doz. tooth brushes, the hair neither too strong nor too weak, without spunges. ½ doz. do. with the strongest hair, such as hog’s bristle, without spunges also. A silver tooth pick case, the smallest possible, such as you may have seen me use, if you should happen to have noticed mine. They cost about a dollar." Archaeologists digging in Williamsburg in 1988 found a bone handle, perhaps for a toothbrush, inscribed “th. Jefferson.”

“Let each successive day unfailing bring, The brush, the dentifrice, and the spring.”
Solyman Brown, Dentologia (New York, 1833)

The use of dental products exploded in the 1800s, especially in the United States. One key factor was a growing middle class with disposable income. Another was a growing dental profession. A third was a growing commercial culture that brought toothbrushes, pastes, and powders to shops in communities across the country. Readers can explore how oral care—including toothbrushes—changed in this later period in the Cosmetics and Personal Care Products object group.

A small yellow tin container decorated with the illustration of a suited man brushing his teeth with a toothbrush. Illustrated ribbons posed next to the man say "Sozodont for cleansing" and "Powder the teeth."
Sozodont—the term allegedly comes from the Greek words for save and teeth—was a popular tooth powder created by a New Jersey pharmacist around 1859. Notice the image of a man with a toothbrush on the tin container. (MG.293320.0986)

Deborah Warner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science who blogs about science and culture.