Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Brief History of Toothpaste and the Toothbrush by Kathleen Bittner Roth

Welcome back to History Undressed, member of our blogging team, Kathleen Bittner Roth! Today she's got a great post on the history of toothpaste and the toothbrush. Enjoy! 


I can still remember being five-years-old and standing on a stool to reach the sink. I would lean over and with the water trickling from the faucet, brush my teeth for as long as I could get away with it. We used tooth powder back then, a strong, peppermint flavored triturate held cupped in the palm of my hand. The reason we used that strong, tongue-bracing powder instead of a milder toothpaste was because with six kids in the family, a tube of toothpaste wouldn’t have lasted a week. Nor would the culprit squeezing from the middle have gotten caught.
I would dip my wet brush into the mix, then scrub and suck. I loved sucking the tart sweetness off those bristles dipped in the tasty solution until my tongue would wrinkle and I was ejected from the bathroom. I had questions back then. Who invented the toothbrush? What did they use before toothbrushes came about or did they just let their teeth fall out? Who invented toothpowder or did they use soap?

Actually, until 1945, toothpastes did contain soap which was replaced by other ingredients, one of which is sodium lauryl sulphate, commonly used today.

Who actually invented toothpaste I wondered? The Egyptians were said to use emulsions to scrub their teeth way back in 5,000 BC – before the toothbrush was invented. China and India used pastes on their teeth at about 500 BC, as did the Romans and Greeks, but the dating is sketchy for them. 
Had you used toothpaste back then, you’d likely have inadvertently ingested some of the following ingredients: Ground pumice stone, ground ox hooves, ground eggshells, charcoal, crushed oyster shells, and salt. The Romans and Chinese apparently had a great penchant for sweet-smelling breath—they loaded their rough pastes with herbs and mints, even crushed iris flowers.

Let’s move up to modern times, say the 1800’s, when pastes in England began to be sold commercially. Chalk was added, as were ground betel nuts. Although salt was still used, ground ox hooves and oyster shells became a thing of the past. 
Mind you, I’ve thus far described powdered “pastes” requiring a little added water at the time of use. So when did we get to the stage of pastes in tubes? Around 1850 a Crème Dentifrice was developed, and in 1873 Colgate began producing toothpaste in a jar. It wasn’t until 1890 that Dr. Washington Sheffield managed to squeeze the emulsion into a tube and sell his patent. Mass production ensued thereafter (nonetheless, my father insisted on the strong powder while we were young. Indeed, we would’ve put him in the poorhouse using anything in a tube—we were a creative, feisty bunch).
When did the actual brushing of teeth with a tool come about? 

Archeologists have found that Babylonians used frayed sticks to scrub their teeth as far back as 3500 BC. Egyptian tomb raiders have found toothsticks buried alongside their owners. 
The actual toothbrush design was thought to come out of China around the fifteenth century. It was made of bristles from a pig’s neck attached to a piece of bamboo. Once the British got hold of this handy device, they switched from harsh bristles to softer horse hair or even feathers.

Move along to 1780 and you’ll find Englishman William Addis designing the first modern-style toothbrush using cattle bone. However, he went back to using boar bristles. By around the mid-1840’s three rows of bristles were added instead of the one. 
All this time, natural bristles were used (I’m hoping they boiled the heck out of them first). It wasn’t until nylon was invented in the 1930’s when things changed, and the toothbrush you see today is a direct descendant from back then. 

And there you have it…the toothbrush dates back to 3500 BC and toothpaste dates back to 5000 BC. Eventually, the two got together and the modern-day toothbrush with all its ergonomic designs came into being.


Kathleen Bittner Roth thrives on creating passionate stories featuring characters who are forced to draw on their strength of spirit to overcome adversity and find unending love. Her own fairy tale wedding in a Scottish castle led her to her current residence in Budapest, Hungary, considered one of Europe’s most romantic cities. However, she still keeps one boot firmly in Texas and the other in her home state of Minnesota. A member of Romance Writers of America®, she was a finalist in the prestigious Golden Heart® contest. Find Kathleen on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Pinterest and www.kathleenbittnerroth.com.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for this wonderful tidbit of information! I have often wondered about the history of dental hygiene. My curiosity on the subject is often peaked during the reading of a historical romance novel. I'm so pleased to now know a bit on how the toothbrush came to be.