The Toothbrush – America’s Favorite Invention

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1938 Dr. West's Miracle Tuft toothbrush ad banner

Hi Tooth Fans!

I hope you’re all enjoying your summer so far!

For the last few weeks I’ve been investigating the practice of something called “mindfulness,” which focuses one’s awareness on living in the present moment, accepting all the thoughts, body sensations, and emotions that come up without judgment. Does that sound New Age or what?

Okay, but what does this have to do with teeth, toothbrushes, and inventions?!

No, I’m not going to tell you to meditate your toothache away… even if you could do that, it would certainly not be healthy. I’m telling you about mindfulness because it’s interesting, it’s good for your overall mental and physical health, and because it is what led me to researching and writing about the evolution of the toothbrush.

I was assigned a mindfulness exercise, to focus on all five of my senses while performing some mundane task (something I do every day like brushing my teeth or doing the dishes). Naturally, I decided to use brushing my teeth.

vintage toothbrush ad depicting a happy man in pajamas holding a toothbrush

Brushing my teeth is an activity I typically do on autopilot, usually while trying to also do something far more interesting like reading or scrolling Facebook on my phone.

Despite being a dentist, I don’t really ENJOY brushing and flossing my teeth, either… I still see it as a chore, just like everyone else does!

While brushing my teeth and trying to focus on the sight of the brush, the smell and taste of the toothpaste, the sound of the electric toothbrush, and the feeling of the bristles and vibrations on my gums, my mind wandered.

It’s natural for the mind to wander, but if you’re practicing mindfulness you’re supposed to move your focus back to the task at hand. Mine kept wandering.

I began wondering just exactly where the toothbrush came from. When did we, as a society, become aware of our oral hygiene? How did we go about taking care of our teeth originally and how did our practices evolve into the complex oral hygiene rituals they are today?

Where did the toothbrush come from?

Original toothbrush: Made in China.
Let’s start with the most common answer. You probably won’t be surprised to find that most sources cite China as the answer to that question. But those original toothbrushes were made of hog hair tied to bamboo or ivory handles. It doesn’t look or sound incredible comfortable, but hey, it was 1498 and people had only recently discovered the world wasn’t actually flat, so no judgment.

hog hair toothbrush
toothbrush c.1498 using hog hair bristles tied to wooden handle

When was the toothbrush invented?

That hog hair toothbrush above dates back to 1498.
There really are multiple answers to this question, depending on how you define “toothbrush” (hog hair, nylon bristles, chew sticks) . . . but a toothbrush resembling what we still use today was 1498 in China.

The more modern, nylon toothbrush (shown in the ad on the right) dates back to 1938.
Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft toothbrush ads of the times (pictured on the right) boasted “a toothbrush without bristles!” Without hog hair bristles is what they meant. They came “sealed in glass – surgically sterile.” and sold for 50 cents, evidently.

vintage, full page ad for Dr. West's Miracle-Tuft toothbrush
full page vintage ad for Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft toothbrush

What did people do before the toothbrush?

Prior to the hog hair special above and Dr. West’s hermetically sealed miracle-tuft, people still cleaned their teeth, just with different instruments. And much earlier, too.

modern day toothpicks
Modern day toothpicks! Studies show Neanderthals may have been using toothpicks to clean between their teeth.

Neanderthals Used Toothpicks

In fact, in April a study was published suggesting that 49,000 years ago, Neanderthals may have been using toothpicks to clean between their teeth.

They found traces of conifer wood in “fossilized plaque” on Neanderthal teeth. (Fossilized plaque, by the way, is what they are calling calculus, or tartar, which is what Mindy, Karey, and Angie scrape off your teeth at your cleaning appointments. I think I’m going to start calling tartar fossilized plaque from now on. It sounds more fun.)

Going back even further, 130,000 years ago in what is now modern day Croatia, remains were found of a Neanderthal with groove patterns in the teeth from using a toothpick, too. In this case, the teeth were noted to have been out of alignment and it is presumed there were years of irritation from food impaction in these areas. Too bad this was so many years before orthodontists! Straightening your teeth isn’t just to make you look good!

Miswak Stick (chew stick)
Egyptians were found buried with their tooth-brushing implements – sticks they had frayed on one end to cleanse their teeth.

Egyptians Used Chew Sticks and Made Toothpaste

Fast forward a few years (3500 – 3000 B.C.). Wood continued to be the main tool in historic tooth cleansing rituals.

Chew Sticks

Ancient Egyptians were found buried with their tooth-brushing implements – sticks they had frayed on one end to cleanse their teeth.

Hey, didn’t the Egyptians’ tombs contain items they hoped to take with them to the afterlife? Does that mean the Egyptians valued their teeth so much they wanted to keep them clean even in death?! Personally, I hope the bacteria causing tooth decay and gum disease don’t follow me to the afterlife because I don’t plan on being buried with my toothbrush.

Later chew sticks continued to be used, with China recording their use in the year 1600 B.C. And, as time went on, different types of twigs were used that had antibacterial properties that were better for tooth cleansing, like licorice, lime and orange trees, tea trees, and the arak tree.

Miswak or Siwak stick
Old islamic traditional natural toothbrush Miswak or Siwak. (Salvadora persica) was used by the Babylonians some 7000 years ago and Greek, Roman empires, and also by ancient Egyptians and Muslims.

Miswak sticks from roots of the Arak tree (Salvadora Persica), sometimes also referred to as the toothbrush tree, continue to be used in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central and Southeast Asia. It is a mainstay in many Islamic regions, as the Prophet Mohammed encouraged it’s use.

“Were it not that I might over-burden the Believers I would have ordered them to use Siwak (Miswak) at the time of every Prayer.”

That’s five times a day! Consider yourselves lucky – Dr. Drews and I are only asking for two!

Egyptian mortar of blue faience, New Kingdom Wellcome M0019319
Egyptian mortar of blue faience, New Kingdom


As a side note, the earliest form of toothpaste that we know of comes from Ancient Egypt.

A document written in the 4th century AD lists a formula for a “powder for white and perfect teeth” noting that when mixed with saliva in the mouth, forms a “clean tooth paste.”

Ancient Egyptian Toothpaste Recipe:

  • 1 drachma of rock salt (.01 oz)
  • 2 drachmas of mint
  • 1 drachma of dried iris flower
  • 20 grains of pepper

Before you get out the mortar and pestle to try this at home, realize that it’s quite abrasive and does not contain fluoride, the major cavity fighting component of modern toothpastes. The diet at the time did not consist of as much sugar and refined carbohydrates like today so cavities were not as big of an issue in the ancient era as they are now.

addis toothbrushes advertisement
William Addis was an English entrepreneur believed to have produced the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780.

The Continued Evolution of the Toothbrush . . .

To continue the evolution, as noted above, the Chinese then developed the first toothbrush (that looks like the toothbrush we commonly use today), in 1498 – but it was made of bone and hog hair, to help the Eastern world in their endeavors to keep their pearly whites shiny and healthy.

In the Western world, they continued using sticks and rags to get the job done, until 1780, when William Addis, an English rag maker by trade, came up with the idea for the first mass produced toothbrush, while sitting in a jail cell for starting a riot. Inspired by the sight of a broom, he supposedly saved a bone from one of his meals and drilled holes in the end and tied boar bristles into them with wire. I’m not entirely sure how he did all this in a prison cell, but when he emerged he perfected the technique, experimenting with badger and horse hair as well, and he made a fortune.

first toothbrush patent illustration
The first American to patent a toothbrush was H. N. Wadsworth, (patent number 18,653,) on Nov. 7, 1857

The toothbrush had its first patent in the U.S. in the year 1857 by Dr. Hiram Nichols Wadsworth, and it’s mass production by other companies in the U.S. started in 1885. At this point, the brushes continued to be made of animal hair and the handles were still either wood or ivory.

It wasn’t until 1938 that DuPont invented nylon as a replacement for silk and incorporated it into toothbrushes. During World War II, our servicemen were provided with toothbrushes and toothpaste and oral hygiene practices were strictly enforced. It wasn’t until these men returned from the war in the 1940’s and brought these habits home with them that your average American truly adopted regular toothbrushing into their routines.

Dr. West's toothbrush ad from 1943
Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft toothbrush 1943 ad: “The greatest contribution you can make to your nation at war: Get Healthy. Keep healthy. Strength is our supreme national resource now or ever.”

Just a year after nylon bristles replaced the hog hair variety, the first ELECTRIC toothbrush was invented in Switzerland. The 1939 electric toothbrush did not prove to be effective, however, and toothbrushes of the electric variety didn’t really take off until Dr. Philippe-Guy Woog of Switzerland developed the Broxodent in 1954.

The Broxodent Automatic Toothbrush

1964 squibb broxodent automatic toothbrush ad
1964 Squibb Broxodent Toothbrush Ad
“This is your Broxodent automatic toothbrush ready for action. The brush itself is the smallest you’ve ever seen. Scientifically sized to clean inside, outside, all around; reaches even hard-to-clean wisdom teeth, effortlessly.”

Though Dr. Woog developed the Broxodent in 1954, it didn’t become really popular until it was marketed in the U.S. in 1959 by E.R. Squibbs and Sons Pharmaceuticals (the makers of dental cream). This toothbrush was developed for those with limited motor skills and for those with orthodontics. You’ll often hear the entire staff at Drews Dental Services commenting that an electric toothbrush is more effective than its manual counterpart, particularly for those with limited range of motion.

I could likely go on forever with the continued evolution of the toothbrush, just as my random thoughts will come and go forever as I practice my mindfulness technique, but it turns out that this random thought was one worth researching.

The toothbrush certainly does have a more interesting history than I had originally thought, and its importance has been recognized before even recorded history.

It’s no wonder that in a 2003 study by MIT, the toothbrush ranked first among inventions that Americans could not live without (the other four options were the car, computer, cell phone, and microwave). Pretty impressive!1

Dr. Who action figures
Dr. Who uses a sonic screwdriver, but I think it’d be cooler if he used a sonic toothbrush!

By the way, mindfulness has actually been practiced for thousands of years, with roots not just in Buddhism and Hinduism, but also in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. More recently it has been secularized and taught from a scientific perspective, as it has been clinically shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as the negative effects of chronic pain.

If you are looking for ways to reduce the potential for tooth pain, I recommend using a toothbrush regularly. We carry the Oral-B Power Toothbrushes at the office that come with all kinds of nifty features like a built in timer, a pressure sensor, and a brushing mode (if you have sensitive teeth you can set it to ‘gentle mode’). If you’re interested in purchasing one, or learning how to operate all the gizmos and gadgets, give us a call or stop in.

And if you’re interested in more vintage ad fun, check out the Saturday Evening Post’s Vintage ads for tooth products going back to 1905.

Love & mindfully yours,

kristie's signature

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