Twigs and Pine Needles: Dental Hygiene Before the Toothbrush

Dental Hygiene Before the ToothbrushYou probably value your toothbrush, but can you imagine living without it? Turns out, neither can most people.

A 2003 Lemelson-MIT study found that 42% of adults would rather live without a car, personal computer, microwave, and even cell phone (gasp!) than their toothbrush. Even teenagers chose the toothbrush, at a rate of 34%.

This urge to clean our teeth dates back to the earliest days of human history. Teeth from early humans show markings of what seem to be wooden or bone toothpicks used to remove seeds and fragments. Luckily, we’ve made progress since then, but perhaps not as quickly as you thought!

Read on for a (sometimes shocking!) timeline of human dental hygiene throughout the ages.

Toothcare Timeline

5000 BC – Egyptians begin using a paste to clean their teeth, and many other societies followed suit.  Ancient toothpastes had the same goals we do today – clean teeth and gums, whiten teeth, and freshen breath. However, they used abrasive materials like ground bone and ox hoof, charred egg shells, rock salt, pumice stone, pepper, and ashes, sweetened with honey, myrrh, dried iris flowers. In Asia, ginseng, herbal mints, and salt formed the basis of toothpastes.

3500-3000 BC – Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians begin making toothbrushes out of the frayed ends of a twigs. Examples of these tools have been found alongside their owners in Egyptian tombs.

1600 BC – Ancient Chinese people begin using “chewing sticks” made from aromatic woods to clean teeth and freshen breath.

500 BC – People in China and India begin using toothpastes.

1200s AD – by this time, eastern Native Americans were regularly using pounded hardwood twigs to clean their teeth. Later, colonists in 17th century Virginia took up the widespread practice as their primary method of dental care.

1498 – Chinese artisans begin producing animal hair toothbrushes, usually made from the bristles on a pig’s neck attached to a bamboo or bone handle.

Late 1600stooth brushing has become a regular habit throughout much of Europe, likely related to the importing of Chinese toothbrushes. The design was adapted for Europeans to include softer horsehair and even feathers.

1780 – William Addis invented the first brush of a more “modern” design, still using boar bristles and a carved cattle bone handle. 

1844 – A more effective toothbrush with three rows of bristles is introduced in Britain.

1850s – tooth powders, which had been the norm, are replaced by new, easier-to-use tooth pastes. In 1873, Colgate began to mass produce toothpaste in jars, and in 1890, introduced toothpaste in a tube!

Late 1800stoothbrushes become available in the US, but brushing hasn’t yet become a regular activity.

1938 – The first truly modern toothbrush is produced after Du Pont invents nylon, allowing synthetic bristles to replace natural hair bristles.

1939 – The first electric toothbrush is invented, but it isn’t until 1960 that electric toothbrushes debut in the US under the brand name Broxodent.

1945 – soldiers return home from WWII, bringing new oral hygiene habits with them. US soldiers were required to brush during their military service. Also in 1945, soap was removed from the recipes for toothpaste, replaced by other (better tasting!) emulsifiers.

So, what lessons are there for the modern electric-toothbrush-loving American?

Firstly, keep in mind that what you eat and drink is one of the biggest factors in your dental health, and the modern diet is one of the biggest sources of dental issues. Cavities and gum disease were almost nonexistent in ancient hunter-gatherers.

The ideal diet for dental health is low in sugars and acidic foods and high in whole grains, raw vegetables, and other abrasive, chewy foods that clean the surfaces of the teeth. All that chewing also encourages salivation, which cleanses the mouth.

With fewer sugars and acids, your breath will smell better and you’ll reduce your risk of tooth decay. So, by all means, nibble on that parsley garnish! It will naturally freshen your breath.

If you still want to experiment with ancient tooth brushing methods (or if you forgot your toothbrush while camping), try pine needles to clean your teeth! They’ll help sweep away plaque and particles, freshen breath, and even give you a little extra Vitamin C in your diet. Before you try this at home, however, make sure the species of pine you’re using is edible (most are, but a few can be toxic).

How do you go the extra mile to keep your teeth clean? Let us know in the comments! 

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