The Splendid Splinter

Reviewed by Joshua Glenn
Sunday, October 21, 2007


Technology and Culture

By Henry Petroski

Knopf. 443 pp. $27.95

A satirist once described a fictitious journal, titled "History's Splendid Splinter," which was devoted to scholarly essays on the wooden toothpick's "role in social history, patterns of forestry, and the evolving technology of toothpick manufacture." Henry Petroski, who quotes this dig at minutiae-obsessed pedants, gets the joke but refutes it, insisting that even the most insignificant objects can reward our close attention with new revelations. In fact, he spent years researching toothpick manufacture in small-town New England libraries and combing digital archives and dusty patent files and even assiduously picking his own teeth. The end result is a book that offers rare insights into principles of engineering and design, as well as the oddly inspiring story of one man's quixotic mission to put a toothpick in every American's mouth.

For millennia, we humans have dislodged food particles from between our teeth using everything from metal picks to animal claws, bones, whiskers and quills. Emperor Nero prized his reusable toothpick; so did the Prophet Muhammad. Toothpicks fashioned of rare materials permeate the Western canon: Rabelais's Gargantua uses an elephant's tusk after dinner, for example, and in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," Benedick offers to fetch "a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia." But nothing beats a wooden toothpick, according to Petroski, not only because it softens in the mouth but because of its natural bacteria-killing organisms. Let aristocrats torture their gums with germ-laden, unyielding implements! Common folk in the United States and elsewhere preferred to whittle their own, disposable toothpicks after meals.

Wouldn't ready-made wooden toothpicks be more convenient? After all, the Portuguese have whittled orangewood picks for sale since the 16th century; South Americans borrowed the practice. Three centuries later, while visiting Brazil, a bookkeeper from Boston was impressed by the beautiful teeth of the natives, which he attributed to the toothpicks sold there. According to legend, Charles Forster returned home with 75 cases of these irregularly shaped, relatively expensive objects. His career as an importer was short-lived, but Forster realized that he stood to reap a fortune if he could accomplish two tasks: figure out how to make toothpicks efficiently by machine and persuade Americans, many of whom were offended by the Latin custom of picking one's teeth at mealtime, to buy them.

Forster spent a decade attempting to combine an inventive new machine with the proper wood in a money-making enterprise. No inventor himself, he insinuated himself into the Boston-based manufacturing operation of Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, whose revolutionary machines transformed logs into long, thin strips of veneer, then beveled opposing sides of one edge of each strip to form innumerable points. (Shoemakers fed the veneer strips into machines of their own, which chopped them into pegs used to attach soles to uppers.) At Forster's urging, Sturtevant and his hardware specialist, Charles Freeman, tinkered for years before finally producing double-edge-pointed veneer, which could be chopped into toothpicks. In the meantime, they settled on birch for their raw material -- because toothpick wood, explains Petroski, should be odorless and also have "sufficient stiffness to provide the appropriate leverage but not be so stiff as to be unyielding in the mouth."

By the mid-1860s, Forster and his colleagues had developed a device that worked efficiently enough to produce a profitable product: a flat toothpick whose ends, as Petroski notes with a connoisseur's approval, formed "wafer-thin points that could be worked into some of the tightest interdental spaces to attack plaque on a considerable amount of tooth surface." Legend has it that Forster hired "Harvard scholars" to eat at restaurants, then ask loudly for toothpicks, a marketing strategy that paid off. By the end of the decade, orders were pouring in from hotels and restaurants, and the toothpick business would boom for a century.

Multiple chapters on the fate of Forster's enterprise after his death in 1901, not to mention the lives of his children, can be tedious. But don't stop reading or you'll miss Petroski's thoroughgoing descriptions of everything from the "Arkansas toothpick" (a Bowie knife) to vintage toothpick dispensers, as well as anecdotes about everyone from Madame de Lafayette, who used a toothpick to write a biography while imprisoned during the French Revolution, to Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson, who apparently died after imbibing a toothpick-skewered martini olive.

Alas, in the 1980s America's once-thriving mechanized toothpick industry fell on hard times, thanks to globalization in the form of cheap toothpicks from China and South America. Forster's company, now an independent subsidiary of Diamond Brands Inc., produces toothpicks marred by rough points and gouged shafts, laments Petroski, who seems to regard this state of affairs as a national allegory. The splinter, now suitable only for skewering hors d'oeuvres and testing cakes, is splendid no longer. *

Joshua Glenn is a columnist for the Boston Globe's Ideas section and co-editor of "Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company