A Brush with a Hog: Cleaning Your Teeth in the Nineteenth Century
By Kerry Gonzalez
In 2018, archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA), Applied Archaeology and History Associates, Inc., and Dovetail Cultural Resource Group worked on four sites along Frederick Road (MD 144) in Howard County, Maryland. The survey is part of a stewardship initiative by MDOT SHA to explore the history and development of the MD 144 corridor, known historically as the Baltimore and Frederick-Town Turnpike and the National Road. As part of this work, Dovetail will be processing the field and artifact data, as well as producing a final report on four sites. While the archival research and data analysis is ongoing, the site appears to be a mid nineteenth century dwelling that may have served as a store.
This month’s blog highlights a bone toothbrush recovered from the Poplar Springs excavations (Photo 1 and Photo 2). Mid- to late nineteenth century examples like this one, once contained animal hair bristles held in place by copper alloy wiring (Photo 2). While hog bristles were the preferred hair for toothbrushes, horse and badger hair were also used at various times (Pittman 2018).
The first bristled toothbrush was invented during the Tang Dynasty (AD 619–907) in China (Library of Congress 2013). While the bone or bamboo toothbrush with hog bristles was used throughout China during and after the Tang Dynasty, it was some time before this invention reached Europe. Prior to this, Europeans would clean their teeth (if they chose to do so) with a rag or chew stick (Samford 2002). It was not until 1780 that William Addis reportedly invented what we know today as the toothbrush. The legend says:
Addis became involved in a dispute that got out of control, and was thrown into Newgate prison, charged with starting a riot. Languishing in a dark and dank jail cell, Addis had time on his hands, and a foul-tasting mouth. The story has it that he spied a broom in a corner of a room, and was struck with inspiration. Retrieving a bone from the jail cell floor, he somehow drilled holes into it and obtained bristles from a sympathetic jailer. [Museum of Everyday Life n.d.]
Toothbrushes were being mass-produced across Europe by the 1840s, and by 1857 the first U.S. patent was filed by H.N. Wadsworth. This patent outlines how the new and improved angle of the bristles “keeps the gums healthy and vigorous” among other things (Samford 2002). However, while toothbrushes likely cleaned better than the previously used rag or stick, the bristles often broke off leaving sharp ends that punctured the fragile gum tissue and thus led to nasty oral infections. Animal hair continued to be used in toothbrushes until 1938 when the first toothbrush with nylon bristles was presented to the market (Pittman 2018). The bristles on this new and improved toothbrush were still very coarse and it was not until the 1950s that softer bristles were introduced. So, while you are brushing your teeth tonight, be thankful that the toothbrush was invented and that you are not using a chew stick or rag to clean your teeth.
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Museum of Everyday Life
n.d. Prison, Suicide, & the Cold-Climate Hog. Electronic document, https://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/previous-exhibitions/toothbrush-from-twig-to-bristle-in-all-its-expedient-beauty/a-visual-history-of-the-toothbrush. Accessed August 2018.
Library of Congress
2013 “Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was it Invented?” Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress. Website accessed February 23, 2017 at https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html.
2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Toothbrush. Electronic document, https://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/may03/iotm.cfm. Accessed August 2018.
2002 Bone Handled Toothbrushes. Electronic document, https://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/SmallFinds/Toothbrushes/index-BoneHandledToothbrushes.html, accessed August 2018.