Based on a lifespan of 70 years, and a minute spent brushing your teeth twice a day, the average person will dedicate 852 hours, or 35.5 days of their life to brushing their teeth. But how often do you consider the history or technology involved in that tiny little toothbrush you spend so many hours using?
It’s worth pondering because the humble toothbrush has a fascinating history that stretches far back to ancient civilisation. Here’s a quick “brush” up on the history of the humble toothbrush.
The chewing stick
Call it a chewing stick, Miswak, sewak or siwak, the first incarnation of the toothbrush dates back as far as 3500BC.
Taken from the roots or twigs of plants, one end of the stick is chewed until it frays and can be used to brush the teeth. The other can then be used as a toothpick if required.
A host of different plants have been used for this purpose with most containing a high content of tannins (both antibacterial and astringent) which have benefits for the teeth and gums.
These include Salvadora Persica (the toothbrush tree), olive trees, lime trees, gum trees, bamboo, walnut and so many more.
There are records of chew sticks being used in Babylonia in 3500 BC and one was found in an Egyptian tomb from 3000 BC.
They are also mentioned in Chinese documents dating from 1600 BC and in the Tipitaka, the Buddhist Canon from 5BC.
The bristle toothbrush
The first bristle toothbrush is believed to have been created in China between 619-907 during the Tang Dynasty.
Course hog hair of cold climate hogs was used for the bristles and inserted into tiny holes in bamboo.
Its use by Northern Chinese Monks was even documented in 1223 by a Japanese Zen master who visited the region.
A bit of a rub
Over in Europe things had taken a slightly different course. Rather than using chew sticks, teeth cleaning involved rolling rags in soot or salt and then rubbing it on the teeth.
But then inspiration struck and according to legend it came from a rag merchant called William Addis who happened to be languishing in a jail cell in 1780.
With time on his hands, Addis spied a broom and an idea took hold. He managed to carve tiny holes in a bone, obtained some bristles and the toothbrush was born.
When he was released from prison, Addis began producing toothbrushes, growing his invention into an empire that by 1840 employed 60 workers and produced four different types of toothbrush. The company remained in the Addis family until 1996, and still manufactures 70 million toothbrushes in the UK each year.
A nylon revolution
Little changed about the now mass-produced toothbrush until 1935. Celluloid had gradually replaced wooden handles, but then a chemist at DuPont created a super polymer that would soon be known as nylon. By 1938 Nylon and replaced the use of animal hairs in toothbrushes.
The use of toothbrushes as we know them today took off after WWII when soldiers returning from the front brought their vigilant hygiene habits home with them.
Meanwhile, the first electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland in 1954, and by the turn of the 21st century plastic was the material most widely used for handles.
The environmental impact
The toothbrush might be a story of slow innovation, but its environmental cost has been swift. An estimated 30 million toothbrushes are discarded annually in Australia each year, taking up 1000 tonnes of landfill
In the US one billion toothbrushes are discarded annually.
About Bare Brush
At Bare Brush we have a range of natural toothbrushes offering minimal environmental impact. We also feature chew sticks from the Salvadora Persica Tree. Our aim is to offer the best available oral hygiene tools, while also minimising our environmental footprint. It’s the best of toothbrush history combined in one convenient place.