How did people clean their teeth before the toothbrush? For many of us, this everyday tool has become indispensable for keeping our teeth and gums clean and maintaining our oral health. So it might surprise you to learn that the toothbrush wasn’t invented until 1938, at least in the form we recognise it today.
In fact, the history of oral hygiene stretches back at least 5,000 years to the earliest known civilisations, and some of these ancient teeth cleaning practices are still followed today.
Oral hygiene in the early ages
Before the toothbrush, there was the chew stick. These are twigs frayed at one end and pointed at the other, which are alternately used to brush the teeth and pick out trapped food.
Archaeological excavations have found that chew sticks were used in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) in 3500 BC and in Egypt from 3000 BC. Other historical teeth cleaning tools included animal bones, feathers and the quills of porcupines.
While chew sticks don’t clean teeth as thoroughly as a modern toothbrush, they are still widely used in some cultures, particularly in Africa and in the Islamic world.
The first toothbrush
The earliest known toothbrushes with bristles were used in China during the Tang Dynasty, between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. These used the firm hairs of Siberian hogs for the bristles, attached to a bamboo or bone handle. When the toothbrush arrived in Europe in the 17th century, Europeans found that they preferred softer horse hair.
The first patented toothbrush by American H.N. Wadsworth began mass production in 1885 and was still based on the old hog hair brushes, sometimes substituting wood or ivory handles in place of bone.
World wars and oral hygiene
Even less than a century ago, toothbrushes weren’t the staples of daily life that they are today. Oral health only became a major talking point after the world wars, when returning soldiers brought good habits back home to their families.
Dental disease was viewed as a serious health concern in World War I, when soldiers were instructed in proper oral hygiene by dentists and disciplined to brush their teeth every day. Toothbrush manufacture saw a surge in demand in the 1920s and 30s, when leading brands such as Wisdom arrived in Australia and tooth brushing became a routine. By the time of World War II, many soldiers were being issued with nylon-bristle toothbrushes.
The next generation toothbrush
The first nylon-bristled toothbrushes were produced by DuPont in 1938, replacing animal hairs. Handles were now usually made from celluloid plastic rather than natural materials.
The next major step in toothbrush technology was the development of the electric toothbrush. Dr Philippe Guy Woog launched the Broxodent in 1954, which plugged into standard wall outlets. By the next decade, cordless battery-powered models were being manufactured by major companies such as General Electric.
Today’s toothbrushes may not look all that different from those of the past, but subtle modifications have made some products more efficient at removing plaque and improving oral health even further. These advances include angled heads, ergonomic grips, a combination of hard and soft bristles for enhanced cleaning and toothbrushes designed especially for children.
Dentists recommend that you brush your teeth at least twice a day, using a soft toothbrush with rounded bristles and fluoride toothpaste. Flossing at least once daily, visiting your dentist twice a year and following a healthy diet are also part of a good oral hygiene routine.
Talk to a dentist in Melbourne
Are you due for your next dental visit? Speak to our team at All Day EveryDay Dental to make an appointment with our dentists in Brunswick and Kew.