Ever Wondered How People Cleaned Their Teeth Before They Had Toothbrushes?

A pygmy hippopotamus has his teeth cleaned with a toothbrush at the London Zoo. Centuries ago, toothbrushes were made of bone and pig bristles.
A pygmy hippopotamus has his teeth cleaned with a toothbrush at the London Zoo. Centuries ago, toothbrushes were made of bone and pig bristles. (2006 Photo By Sang Tan -- Associated Press)
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Monday, April 13, 2009

We bet that a lot of you think brushing your teeth is annoying. You might even try to skip it every now and then, when you think your parents won't catch you!

Well, imagine what your life would be like if you didn't have a modern toothbrush to clean your pearly whites.

You'd do what people did before the toothbrush was invented: Find another way.

Thousands of years ago, people wanted to keep their teeth and gums clean, their breath fresh and their teeth white, just like people do today. They found different tools with which to do it.

Before toothbrushes, people used rough cloth and water to clean their teeth. They would also rub things like salt and chalk across their teeth to try to get rid of the grime.

The ancient Egyptians made a kind of brush by splitting the end of a twig. And the ancient Chinese chewed on twigs with a special flavor to freshen their breath.

People also used forms of toothpaste that they made out of ingredients you probably wouldn't want to put in your mouth.

Sometimes a powder was made of the ashes of ox hooves and burned eggshells. The ancient Greeks and Romans used materials such as crushed oyster shells and bones.

The Chinese are believed to have made the first natural-bristle toothbrush in the 1400s by using bristles from pigs' necks. The bristles were attached to a handle made of bone or bamboo.

The first toothbrush that resembles the one you use today was made in England in the 1770s. A man named William Addis came up with the idea while he was in prison, put there for having started a riot. He didn't think the rag he was given was cleaning his teeth well enough, so he saved a small bone from a meal. He put tiny holes in it and used glue to attach pig bristles he had gotten from a prison guard.

The first patent for a toothbrush was awarded to an American named H.N. Wadsworth in 1857, but it wasn't until the invention of nylon in the 1930s that toothbrushes came to look like the ones you use.

And it wasn't until after World War II that Americans started brushing their teeth regularly. U.S. soldiers brought the daily habit back home with them from abroad, and that helped make the practice popular.

Now go ahead and admit it: It would be pretty gross if you didn't have a toothbrush to clean your teeth, wouldn't it?

-- Valerie Strauss


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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