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The History of the Toothbrush - A Brush With History!

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The History of the Toothbrush is a screenplay I don't have in my mind, but if I did it would be called, "A Brush With History". It is actually quite interesting and who doesn't love a story that comes full circle with a twist. Here's a toothbrush history infographic if you just want a quick brush around. 

When did we start using toothbrushes? One would venture a guess that probably since humans started using tools. Surely, some hairy distant relative had the bright idea to take a stick and brush it against their teeth.

Clearly getting food stuck in your teeth and wanting that fresh-from-the-dentist-feeling isn’t a modern invention. Well, the fresh-from-the-dentist is, but you get the point. Even Neanderthals wanted to some degree have shiny pearly whites after snacking on bugs, beasts and berries.

There is evidence of oral hygiene using chewsticks that dates back to 3500 BC in Babylonia. There is further proof found in an Egyptian tomb in 3000 BC. Sticks with one frayed end and a pointy end, made a crude, if not an effective toothpick and toothbrush. 

Looking at Chinese records we see that these “toothbrushes” or more accurately, chewsticks were used from 1600 BC. Of course we can’t forget the clever Greeks and Romans, who used toothpicks to clean their teeth. People all over the world and even of all different faiths had a desire to clean their teeth. In the Islamic world the use of a chewing stick called, Miswak, was used before every prayer.

toothbrush history


Not much happened till 1223, when Japanese Zen master Dōgen Kigen, reports that he saw monks in China clean their teeth with brushes made of horse-tail hairs, which were attached to an ox-bone handle. Well one monk must have said to another, “What do you get when you cross a pig and bamboo? Let me show you my friend.” Yes, leave it to Chinese ingenuity to take hog hair during the Tang Dynasty (619–907) and come up with the first bristle toothbrush.

Yeah, I’ll believe that when pigs fly into my mouth and if feels cleaner after. Actually it does seem to be true. You can even buy these biodegradable toothbrushes still today though we haven’t sourced them. Many of our vegan and Muslim customers are happy to hear that :)

In ancient days and even nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be a better source for your hog hair than from cold climate pigs living in Siberia and northern China. Cold weather makes for stiffer bristles don’t you know?

However, with the surge in pastured pigs and heritage breeds being bred in Europe, the USA and Canada, it’s only a matter of time till we have hog hair sources from all over. Come on, there must be some enterprising permie (permaculture practioner) who wants to figure out how to divert this valuable “waste” stream. Much like your Gaia Guy toothbrush, these bristles were attached to a bamboo handle (in some cases bone – no haven’t got those on the site).  

Huzzah! The bristle toothbrush makes its way back from China in the mouths of European travelers. It is much like how gap year youths and other vagabonds return from travel with broadened horizons and Thai fisherman pants.

However, those softies in Europe during the 17th century preferred horsehair. It seems the Chinese hog bristles were too firm, but horsehair was just right.

Just another overnight success! The mass-produced toothbrushes continued to be imported to England from China until… well one could argue till today. It took mere centuries, but hey, an idea whose time has come takes off in popularity like pigs in a blanket at a picnic. Which you are obliged to assume are popular for the sake of this post; regardless of your familiarity with that British baked beauty.   

Jailbird William Addis of England is credited to coming up with a huge improvement on the old rag with soot and salt teeth cleaning method he was forced to use, while doing a stint during the 1770s. 

However, William devised a toothbrush out of a bit of bone and some bristles. After getting out he started mass-producing toothbrushes in 1780 and they were a huge hit. Timing is everything of course and with the newly introduced refined sugar the toothbrush was rather to have handy. The company now known as, Wisdom Toothbrushes, turns out 70 million toothbrushes per year in the UK.

Yes, it started a long, long, LONG time ago, but by 1840 toothbrushes from England, France, Germany, and Japan were ubiquitous. The materials of choice didn’t change much either. Pig bristles for cheaper toothbrushes, and badger hair for pricey ones.

In 1857 H.N. Wadsworth is granted a patent in the United States, though mass production only started in 1885. It is still incredible, though not surprising, that you can patent an idea that clearly was not original and had been in everybody’s mouth for a millennia before. Granted this was considered an advanced design; however, utilizing a bone handle with Siberian boar hair bristles so clearly deserves a patent. Sarcasm emojii where are you!?

It turns out that animal bristle is not ideal as it can retain moisture longer providing a nice little habitat for bacteria.

history of the toothbrush

Starting in the 1900s, celluloid handles replaced bone and natural animal bristles were switched out for nylon starting in 1938. By the turn of the 21st century, plastic became the standard and the stupidity ramps up.

Countless improvements (read marketing gimmicks) have been introduced since the hugely popular “Reach” toothbrush hit the mouths of the world in 1977.

Could you live without your toothbrush? No is the answer. In January 2003, the toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without (according to the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index).

And there is the history of the toothbrush. Enthralling! One has to wonder who would play William Addis in the movie adaption of this blog post?

One key takeaway is that for a millennium, a stick and later a bit of bamboo and bristles, made of natural animal hair got the job done and these were 100% biodegradable.

Why over engineer something and use precious fossil fuels for your oral hygiene needs, when a bamboo toothbrush gets the job done as well, if not better (see the reviews).

Try one for yourself and see what all the fuss is about. Get your bamboo toothbrush or even a plastic-free oral hygiene kit here.

Sources: Invented in Jail - QI

Toothbrush History from Wikipedia


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