It may be hard to believe, but regular tooth brushing was not really a part of our society until after the Second World War. Just prior to the war, Dupont invented nylon, and, in 1938, the first nylon-bristled toothbrush was manufactured and marketed. During the war, American service men were provided with toothbrushes and toothpaste and disciplined to brush their teeth on a regular basis. After the war, the custom spread to all of North American society.
This does not mean that some people were not cleaning their teeth before this time. The ancient Egyptians used toothbrushes made from sticks which had been pounded or chewed to produce a splayed end. The Romans, Greeks, and Southeastern Asians also used such sticks. Later European toothbrushes came from the Chinese, who used toothbrushes made from cold climate boar bristles, stuck into a wooden handle. Originally, these were simply imported from China after contacts were established there in the 1600’s. Later on, the French, British, and Americans began manufacturing these wooden handled, boar-bristled toothbrushes, themselves, for members of the upper classes. However, the common man or woman continued to clean his or her teeth with a rag and soot or chalk.
But even boar-bristled toothbrushes were not as clean as nylon-bristled brushes were to be; the bristles harboured bacteria. As well, the bristles tended to fall out.
The nylon-bristled toothbrush was not the only dental advance seen around the 1940’s. With the widespread use of toothbrushes following World War II, people increasingly used dental floss for cleaning between teeth. They also used toothpaste, a product which had been developing since the late 1800’s but never seen really widespread use until the 1940’s.
Other, less successful refinements in tooth brushing were also widely marketed following the Second World War. The electric tooth brush was invented just before the war. However, as with manual toothbrushes, its use was not widespread in North America until after the war. In 1959, Broxident introduced the first electric toothbrush to be widely used in North America. Electric toothbrushes, however, were never to outnumber their manual counterparts as most people continued to buy the manual brushes for use. Improvements in the manual brushes over the years following World War II have included differential shaping and angling of the head of the brush, variation of bristle hardness or softness to achieve better tooth and gum cleaning, and the manufacture of varied brushes for inter-tooth cleaning. Less popular developments include throw-away tooth brushes sold with toothpaste on the head and chewable brushes made for one-time use only.
In a time when brushing one’s teeth is viewed as almost as essential as getting sufficient rest at night or eating good food, it is hard to believe that this habit is so new to general human culture. In these days, even pet owners are brushing their pets’ teeth, and many products can be bought for this purpose. One has to admit that, in all senses, a good habit has very recently come a long way.