Who Invented the Toothbrush? The History of An Everyday Device

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Do you ever wonder about how people in ancient times kept their teeth from rotting, or even talked to each other without have a toothbrush and toothpaste handy? 

Today we are a judgmental society when it comes to our smiles.  In fact, teeth are the first thing we notice when meeting another person for the first time. 

Before the invention of the modern toothbrush, people had been cleaning their teeth for millennia.  The first record of oral hygienic activity can be attributed to the Ancient Greeks who chewed lumps of tree resin called mastiche to clean their teeth and freshen breath. 

'Mastiche' is called such because it was made from the resin of the mastic, a small evergreen tree.

Then who was the mastermind behind the toothbrush?  The innovative design has changed a lot throughout history.  Here's a timeline of the advancements in oral hygiene that led to our modern toothbrush:

5000 B.C. -- The Ancient Egyptians used a powder made from ox hooves and eggshells to scrub their teeth.  Around the same time, the Romans employed sticks with frayed ends and Greeks moved away from mastiche and onto rough cloths.

619-907 -- About 800 years ago in China during Tang Dynasty, the first bristle toothbrush was found.  So in one way, the Chinese invented the first proto-toothbrushes by attaching coarse boar or horse-tail hairs to bamboo or ivory handles.

Middle Ages -- The Chinese couldn't keep it secret for long.  In 1223, a Japanese Zem master witnessed monks in China using these brushes to clean their teeth.  Travelers then brought the bristle toothbrush from China to Europe and it spread throughout the continent.

Late 1700s --  William Addis of England was thrown in jail for causing a riot.  While in prison, Addis ruminated over the effectiveness of the traditional way people were cleaning their teeth -- by running a rag with soot and salt on the teeth. 

Using a small animal bone from his meal, he drilled small holes into it, obtained bristles from a guard, tied them into tufts for the holes and held it all together with wire.  Once he was released from prison, he mass-manufactured the toothbrush and became a very wealthy man.  The company still exists today under the name of Wisdom Toothbrushes.

1938 -- Though Addis may have physically constructed the toothbrush, our modern toothbrush as you know does not consist of animal hairs.  The DuPont company is responsible for switching to synthetic (typically nylon) fibers, which held up much better and didn't retain the bacteria animal bristles did.

1954-- The first electric toothbrush called the Broxodent was introduced in Switzerland.

Post WWII -- In America, the widespread practice of brushing one's teeth regularly was unofficially inaugurated when soldiers returned home from World War II with military hygiene habits ingrained in their heads. 

21st Century-- The modern toothbrush consists of a handle made of thermoplastic materials and nylon bristles.

There you have it.  Did you already know any of these fun facts about the development of the toothbrush?

Dr. Brad Hylan is a gentle and affordable comprehensive care dentist located in Cleveland, OH with a keen interest in history, travel, and wind-surfing.

Hylan Dental Care specializes in emergency care, cosmetic dentistry, and dental implants. To better accommodate our patients, we offer them same day appointments.

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