Origins of ordinary things: Toothbrushes

If a person does not brush their teeth on a regular basis, they are likely to cause discomfort to everyone around them with bad breath. They will also risk developing cavities. It’s a good thing then, that toothbrushes are affordable and long-lasting. But even before toothbrushes were invented, people already knew the importance of brushing and thus used other materials.

According to Science Illustrated, an education platform, in 3000 BC, Egyptians and Babylonians were known to use twigs whose edges were bitten to make them frayed. Other materials for brushing included bird feathers and porcupine quills.

However, the first semblance of toothbrushes as we know them today came many millennia later when the Chinese made a bristle tooth brush out of boar hair or hog hair or horse hair attached to bamboo or bone. According to information site History Revealed, this was in the 1400s.

During this time, Europeans who travelled to China liked the toothbrush and took it back home and by 17th Century, it was being used in Europe. The problem with hog hair, Europeans observed, was that it was much too firm. They thus preferred bristles made from horse hair and China produced them for importation to Europe.

In 1770, William Addis, an Englishman, was imprisoned for causing a riot. While in prison, he was dissatisfied with using a rag and salt to clean his teeth. He then set out to make a toothbrush by drilling small holes into a pig bone he had saved from a meal and filling it with tuft bristles he had obtained from a prison guard. When he was released from prison, he started a toothbrush manufacturing company which was a success and earned him a great deal of wealth. This is according to History, an online knowledge platform.

Toothbrushes made from natural material were problematic because, according to information site History of Dentistry, they retained bacteria and didn’t dry well. But since there was lack of better alternatives; synthetic bristle tooth brushes only came into production in the 20th Century. They are attributed to the DuPont Company which produced the first toothbrush with nylon fibres in 1938. According to the website Toothbrushes, the first synthetic toothbrushes were known as Doctor West’s ‘Miracle Toothbrush’. 

Today, there is a variety of toothbrushes, most of which are made of plastic handles and nylon bristles and they are mostly affordable. There are many companies trying to gain competitive advantage by claiming superiority in toothbrush effectiveness. Others have produced sophisticated types, such as the electric toothbrush introduced in 1961.

Toothbrushes are now a common item in every home and dentists advise people to clean their teeth after every meal to avoid tooth and gum diseases.