The Surprisingly Piggy and Rebellious History of Toothbrushes

We at A Better Dental pride ourselves in being at the forefront of innovation in oral care technologies. And while toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss are often taken for granted, each of these inventions play a huge role in our lives. We all should be brushing our teeth for at least 2 minutes twice a day and flossing regularly as integral parts of our hygiene routines. And even though many of us have been brushing our teeth for as long as we can remember, oral care as we know it today is actually a very modern development. In fact, a recognizably modern toothbrush wasn’t designed until 1938. Does that mean that no one was doing anything to take care of their teeth until then? Nope, but toothbrush innovation was far from a linear process

In the time before modern toothbrushes, the first oral and dental care tool to be used in recorded history was what experts now call a chewstick. Seeming to be used fairly often by Egyptians and Babylonians around 3500–3000 BC, the chewstick was actually a stick with two altered ends. One end was frayed for brushing and the other end was sharpened to dislodge food from between teeth. This one device functioned as a rudimentary toothbrush and toothpick at once. The frayed end of the chewstick especially served as a precursor to the bristles in much later dental tools.

Interestingly, the bristle style toothbrush didn't come about until centuries, even millennia, after the chewstick. While there is a bit of debate about the exact timing, many archaeologists agree that the bristle toothbrush first emerged in China around 619-907 AD during the Tang Dynasty. Others would argue that this toothbrush model didn’t arise in China until 1498. Yey, regardless of the era, experts also assert that the bristles were likely made from the coarse hairs on the back of Siberian hogs' necks. The handles were probably made of bone or bamboo. Bristle style toothbrushes predominantly remained in China until Europeans acquired them through trade in the 16th or 17th century.

A couple of centuries after its arrival in Europe, the bristly style toothbrush was first mass-produced by an Englishman named William Addis in 1780. Fascinatingly, Addis conceptualized the mass production of toothbrushes while he was sitting in jail for inciting a riot. Addis ended up leaving prison, launching this successful business, and dying a very wealthy man. Across the pond, the first patent for a new bristle brush model in the United States was filed by H.N. Wadsworth in 1857. Again, please bear in mind that even these toothbrushes were still using animal products like hog hair for the bristles and animal bone for the handle. The modern toothbrush still had yet to come.

Some of the biggest strides in toothbrush technology happened during the twentieth century. This is when what we now call the modern toothbrush finally arrived. In 1938, the DuPont Company created a non-hog-hair toothbrush, using their newly engineered nylon fibers as the bristles instead. The handles were also made with synthetic materials. The emergence of this modern toothbrush coincided with the increase of societal encouragement to incorporate teeth brushing into wellness routines. During World War II, for example, civilians started to brush their teeth more regularly to mirror the disciplined hygiene regimens of soldiers. This new emphasis on oral care incentivized the eventual development of the first electric toothbrush by the Squibb Company in 1960. Needless to say, toothbrush innovation has been onward and upward ever since then.

While we at A Better Dental press into the future of oral care, it is important for us to acknowledge its history, reaching back to early civilizations. But who would’ve ever guessed the evolution of the toothbrush was so piggy and rebellious? Clearly, oral care is often more surprising than we’d ever imagine.