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From chewing sticks to horse-hair toothbrushes: who made the first toothbrush?

A history lesson in toothbrushes

The first time we mention our bamboo toothbrushes to a loyal plastic-toothbrush user, one of the first things they tend to say (in their state of wonder and awe) is: “but why would you want to use a wooden toothbrush?”

We could go on and on about the benefits of bamboo toothbrushes with soft nylon bristles over using a plastic alternative – but we’ve already done that elsewhere. Instead, we got thinking about why we’re so used to plastic toothbrushes when they’re not the only type of toothbrush we’ve used throughout history – not by a long way.

Humans have been looking after their teeth for thousands of years – but it’s not always been with toothbrushes and toothpaste. Buckle up for a good old-fashioned Brushbox history lesson (complete with some surprisingly wild stories…)

3500BC: Chew Sticks

Before the toothbrush came the chew stick – a super creative name for a stick that you chew on. They’re twigs from certain trees that are chewed until one end of the stick becomes frayed – then these frayed ends are used to brush teeth. the earliest chew sticks have been dated to Babylonia in 3500 BC, and have been found in an Egyptian tomb that dates to 3000 BC. As old as they are, these chew sticks are still used across parts of Africa and India today, and have many natural antibacterial properties – the early civilisations were onto something.

619-907: First Bristle Toothbrush in the Tang Dynasty

The first toothbrush with bristles (aka, the ancestor of toothbrushes as we know them) can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. The bristles of these toothbrushes were made of hog hair, which was sourced in Siberia and Northern China because the colder temperatures provided firmer bristles.


1223: Bristle Toothbrushes documented by Dōgen Kigen

Japanese Zen Master Dōgen Kigen in 1223 wrote that, while travelling in China, he saw Chinese monks brushing their teeth with brushes made from horsetail hair tied to an oxbone handle – and once explorers embarked on global travel, it wasn’t long before the toothbrush made its way to Europe…

1780: The first mass-produced toothbrush

This is where toothbrushes start to look a bit more recognisable – even though they were floating around in different shapes, sizes and materials in Europe for a while, William Addis from England is generally believed to have produced the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780, and it’s got surprisingly anarchist roots (for a toothbrush).

Addis was jailed in 1770 for causing a riot. In prison, his inspiration struck: he’d been using a rag covered in soot and salt to clean his teeth but decided he could do better (to be fair, you can see why). He saved a small bone from a meal, drilled holes into it and tied in bristles he’d managed to get from one of the guards in the prison. After his release, he started a business mass-producing his invention, and business boomed.

By 1840, toothbrushes were mass-produced in England, France, Germany and Japan. Pig bristles were used for cheaper toothbrushes, and badger hair for more expensive ones.

1857: First patented toothbrush

H.N. Wadsworth got the first patent for a toothbrush in the US in 1857 but – get this – toothbrushing didn’t become routine in the US until after WWII, when soldiers had to brush their teeth daily!

1900s: Celluloid Toothbrushes

Over the 1900s, toothbrushes started to be made from synthetic materials like nylon and plastic.

1954: The First Electric Toothbrush

The first electric toothbrush, the Broxodent, was invented in Switzerland in 1954, and introduced in the US in 1960.

1950s-Present

Toothbrushes have become a household essential: in 2003, the toothbrush was selected as the number-one invention Americans cannot live without by the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index. There’ve been electric, sonic, and tonnes of different types of plastic toothbrushes invented throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the choice is seemingly endless


The Future of Toothbrushes?

So what’s left for toothbrushes? Have we exhausted all our options? Far from it!

The introduction of disposable plastic toothbrushes seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, though, we’re seeing the impact of single-use plastics on the planet. Plastic takes a thousand years to decompose, and it’s polluting land and sea globally.

It’s time to change the way we think about toothbrushes and get back to basics. Toothbrushes made from bamboo are 100% recyclable and biodegradable and do just the same job that plastic alternatives (which are babies in the world of toothbrushes, anyway) do.

So there you’ve got it. A toothbrush timeline, that we believe will finish where it began: back in nature. There’s still time to minimise your plastic use while taking care of your teeth (plus, a Brushbox subscription means you’ll never forget to replace your toothbrush again – forget frayed bristles).

Tune in next time to the School of Brushbox for more teeth-related history lessons (gripping, right?)

 


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