Different Strokes for Different Folks: A History of the Toothbrush

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Toothpicks

While universally considered an indispensable item for preventing decay and subsequent toothache, at times the toothpick also reflected an individual’s social status. Some of the most elaborate were made of gold decorated with enamel, pearls and precious stones. As a fashionable possession, the showy toothpick would have been readily displayed to suggest one had just enjoyed a sumptuous meal. However, its use at 1800s dinner parties was discouraged, as indicated by several quotes on proper toothpick etiquette: “Do not pick your teeth much at table, as, however satisfactory a practice to yourself, to witness it is not a pleasant thing” and “In company your teeth to pick, Would make refined beholders sick.”

Bennion, E 1986 Antique Dental Instruments, London: Sotheby’s Publ.; Foley, GPH 1972 Foley’s Footnotes: A Treasury of Dentistry, Wallingford, PA: Washington Square East Publ; Petroski, H 2007 The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, New York, NY: Random House.

Gold Toothpicks

Gold Toothpicks

One of these three gold toothpicks (A300.3a) from the Victorian era has a ring for hanging from a chain around a lady’s neck (cover missing); the other two (A300.3b, A359.1) are retractable.
Donor: Dr. Herbert J. Stuart ('37)
Birch Toothpicks

Birch Toothpicks

Native Americans recognized the durability, pliability, and water resistant nature of birch wood, and used its bark to cover the outside of their cedar-framed canoes. Being also naturally sweet, polished birch had all the properties required to make high-quality wood toothpicks. Beginning in the late 1800s in Maine, white birch has served as a prolific source for toothpick manufacture in the United States. This box of “Silver Birch” toothpicks (A417.39) may date to circa 1920.
Donor: Dr. William V. Stenberg (’82)
Stim-U-Dents

Stim-U-Dents

Bone, quills or wood likely served as the first toothpick material. Stim-U-Dents (A403.3), patented in 1937, were used for tooth space cleaning and gum stimulation. They are sold today by Johnson & Johnson and advertised as plaque removers.
Donor: Unknown
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