Brushing up on the history of the toothbrush

From the simple to the blinged-out wild, 5,000 years of dental health

By Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD FAGD, Columnist, The Times

UTStephCollogoThe toothbrush we know today has come a long way since it’s humble beginnings. The earliest toothbrushes were used by the Babylonians and Egyptians around 3500 BC.

It was more of a tooth cleaning stick than a brush as we know it.  Small branches of the olive, sassafras or Salvadora persica trees were cut off and ends chewed until the wood fibers from these trees would form a brush of sorts.  This bristly stick is called a Miswak and is still used in some areas today.

In the late 1400’s it believed that bamboo was made into a handle and hog hair used for bristles. This Chinese invention flourished and the Europeans soon adapted it with bird feathers, animal bones and other bristles on bamboo sticks.

addisThe first mass produced toothbrush happened when William Addis, a rag maker, made improvements to the brush. He perfected his design using cow tail hair.  William Addis’s inventions and improvements came as inspiration while he was jailed for starting a riot in 1770. During this time he got something stuck in his teeth and needed a way to dislodge it.  He eventually mass produced toothbrushes and his company remained a family owned venture until 1996.  William Addis is widely considered to be the father of the modern toothbrush.

Toothbrushes became ornate at the end of the 1700’s. Napoleon used a  silver and gold engraved brush. In many antique shops you will find silver plated toothbrushes and ornate brush stands.

In 1938 our neighbors at the DuPont de Nemours company used their new found nylon polymer to make toothbrush bristles. These nylon bristles were more hygienic and the new product was named “Dr. West’s Miracle Brush”.  During World War II the brush was tied to a campaign to support our soldiers personal hygiene.

broxo1960 brought the first electric toothbrush marketed in America. The Broxodent was marketed by the Squibb company for individuals with limited dexterity.  It was followed by a number of electric vibrating brushes. These early electric brushes were corded appliances that plugged directly into the electric outlet.

1992 brought us the sonicare.  Sonic technology improves the effectiveness of the electric brush. Around this time rechargeable batteries improved as well.

Today, the toothbrush has grown up. We have researchers testing the angle of the trim on the bristles. There are toothbrushes that talk to our smart phones. Light up brush handles that encourage children to brush for the full 2 minutes.   Brushing too hard? There’s an app for that.  Miss a day? You can get a text message reminder.  Bored in the morning? Some toothbrushes will play music and sing to you.  Need a tutorial on how to brush, checkout the oral-b connected brush.  This Bluetooth connected electric toothbrush will work with your smartphone and an interactive connected bathroom mirror to monitor your brushing, remind you of dental visits as well as place your day’s events on a mirror screen.

For the people who need more, now we have the Reinast Luxury toothbrush, sporting a titanium handle.  The impressive $4200.00 manual brush, available in 4 colors, claims to have a trademarked antibacterial coating. The bristles can be replaced – the first three years of replacements are included. Service packages are available for up bristle replacements after the first three years

Toothbrushes have gone from sticks of wood and odor and bacterial absorbing hog bristles to the nylon bristles we trust today.  The modern electric sonic brushes are a far cry from Dr. Addis’s first real toothbrush.

We’ve come a long way baby!

Dr. Stephanie McGann, who has more than two decades of dental practice experience, is a resident of the Unionville area and along with her partner, Dr. Marie Scott, operates The Brandywine Smile Center, a family-friendly dental practice in Concordville. Dr. McGann has opened a new practice in Valley Township, Rainbow Valley Dental. She is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry.

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