10 Tooth-Cleaning Devices & Products of Yesteryear

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Here at mental_floss, as the name suggests, we take our dental hygiene seriously. Accordingly, we felt it would be only fitting and proper to take a closer look at the products and devices folks have used throughout the centuries to fight plaque, tartar, oral fungi and other miscellaneous cavity creeps.

1. Miswak Cleaning Stick

4 out of 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum to patients who chew gum, you say? Big deal! The miswak was recommended by Mohammad himself. In existence for thousands of years and still used to this day, the miswak comes from the twigs of the Salvadora persica (a.k.a. the Arak or Peelu tree). The fibrous stems aren’t just ideal for removing detritus, either—they're also a natural source of fluoride. A 2003 study on miswak vs. toothbrush use concludes that (when users are given proper instruction), chewing sticks are "more effective than toothbrushing for reducing plaque and gingivitis."

2. Early Toothbrushes

Thanks to international trade, by the late 1700s Europeans were consuming greater quantities of sugar than ever before, and tooth decay was consequently on the upswing. The common tooth cleaning practice at the time—rubbing a rag with soot and salt on the teeth—wasn’t doing the trick, apparently. Toothbrushes existed but were considered exotic, so they weren’t widely available. In stepped businessman William Addis, who reckoned the personal brush he used might have mass appeal and rolled the dice on manufacturing them. It was a good gamble: his brushes were an instant smash. Before long it was unfashionable not to use one—and fancy, bone-handled models of the sort shown here began to appear in droves.

3. Bejewelled Toothpicks

Back in the 1800s, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see the cream of fashionable society whipping out these silver or gold plated picks after a fine supper and going full tilt at their incisors. The trend persisted through the 1950s, and it wasn't unusual to find these sterling picks monogrammed or branded with the family crest. Takeaway: don’t be fooled by those boxes of sticks that say “Fancy Toothpicks.”

4. Dental File

From the Middle Ages through the early 1800s, barbers often doubled as dental surgeons. Because—then as now—pearly whites were considered desirable, dental surgeons were often engaged not only to perform extractions, but to whiten teeth. Their technique? Filing holes between the patient’s teeth, then coating their choppers with corrosive nitric acid. And sure enough, this process whitened people’s teeth. Unfortunately it also dissolved the enamel and eventually led to decay and worse.

5. Tongue Scrapers

Tongue cleaning has been practiced since ancient times in India and Russia. And those folks knew what they were about, since decaying bacteria and fungi on the tongue are related to many common oral care and general health problems (not to mention halitosis). Ivory and silver scrapers are just a few of the models used by the hygienically scrupulous in the 1800s, but these days you can (and should) pick up a plastic one at the nearest pharmacy.

6. Early Dental Floss

Even though folks had been using strings and strands of all sorts to dig gunk from between their teeth for centuries, the official invention of floss is generally credited to New Orleans dentist Levi Spear Parmly, who introduced his silk version in 1815. 73 years later, Johnson & Johnson received the first patent for dental floss, and the time-honored tradition of dental hygienists scolding their patients for not flossing often enough was born.

7. Rubber Disk Toothbrush

Here’s a 1931 design that never caught on, despite its very scientific assertion that “the rubber itself produce[d] a polish when used with a dentrifice [i.e., toothpaste or tooth powder]”. Perhaps the problem lay in the shape, or maybe the rubber toothbrush was just too weird compared to the brushes we'd all grown accustomed to by the '30s. At any rate, this was a huge flop.

8. Long-Handled Tongue Brush

Described as having “an unusually long handle, curved to fit the mouth," this Depression-era brush allowed its user to “reach any part of the tongue which may need cleaning,” thus saving exhausted tongue-brushers from the laborious task of raising their arms a few more inches.

9. Hands-Free Motorized Toothbrush

Wowza! This motor-propelled toothbrush allowed its busy owner to multitask, taking care of his choppers by means of a “vibrating arm," and thus leaving him free to shave, trim his nails or think really hard about whether shaving while a vibrating arm is scrubbing at his teeth is really a good idea. The design appeared and disappeared in 1937.

10. Bourbon & Scotch Flavored Toothpaste

Invented in 1954 by Don Poynter—the same man who brought us crossword-puzzle toilet tissue, by the way—these novelty pastes contained real alcohol. Thanks to a nice spread in Life magazine, they became a huge (but short-lived) seller.

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July 17, 2012 - 11:34am
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