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You use it at least twice per day.
You’ve used one nearly your entire life.
But have you ever thought about how the toothbrush came to be? We wondered and looked to the Library of Congress, Colgate, and the History Channel for a history of this often-used but often underappreciated tool.
The modern toothbrush is less than 80 years old, but ancient civilizations did use tools to clean their teeth, as evidenced by artifacts found in Egyptian tombs dating back more than 5,000 years. As early as 3500 BC, the Egyptians and Babylonians made “chewing sticks” of frayed wood fibers by chewing on one end of the piece of wood until it separated into a brush-like shape. Other ancient cultures plied strips of cloth, feathers, bones, and even porcupine quills.
In the 1400’s, the Chinese first fashioned a brush device composed of a bone or bamboo handle with boar-hair bristles plucked from the backs of hogs. Expanding trade routes brought that toothbrush back to Europe, where other animal hairs were sometimes substituted. Around 1780, Englishman William Addis crafted a toothbrush while in prison and later earned a fortune selling the first mass-produced toothbrush, which was made from cow bones and the hair of cow tails. The first American patent for a toothbrush was issued in 1857, and mass production began in the United States 30 years later. These brushes still used animal hair.
With the invention of nylon early last century, brushes with the softer, modern bristles we know today were first introduced in 1938 under the brand name “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft Toothbrush”. During World War II, toothbrushes were marketed to the American homefront supporting the war effort with the slogan of: “Your American Duty…To keep well…and keep working!” Many Americans still did not use a toothbrush, however, until the conclusion of the war as returning servicemen brought back the military value of good hygiene, including daily care for their teeth.
The electric toothbrush was first invented in 1939 in Switzerland, debuting for public use in the 1960s. Today in the United States, more than 3,000 patents for toothbrushes are registered, with 138 registered in 2012 alone.