Brushing your teeth with a twig
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Doing research for my forthcoming novel set in the 1850s, I learned that toothbrushes did exist back then, but they wouldn’t be mass produced in America until the 1880s. Wealthy people were more likely to have toothbrushes, perhaps with bone or wooden handles and horsehair or pig hair bristles. In fact, Napoleon’s toothbrush is on display in a London museum. It has a silver gilt handle with fancy engravings and horsehair bristles. But regular folks in rural areas of the United States continued to use a rather successful tool that people had been using for several thousand years, maybe longer. Frayed twigs. My main character uses a frayed birch twig and bicarbonate of soda – precursor of baking soda – to brush her teeth.
It was actually an excellent way to clean your teeth. My great-grandmother was still using a frayed twig when I was a little girl. Her name was Ellie but we called her Monnie. She was born in rural Georgia in 1885. She lived with her husband in the house he built through the early 1960s. It fascinated me as a small child that she brushed her teeth with a twig. It was about five or six inches long, frayed so that it fanned out in a compact manner on the end. I don’t know what type of tree she used as her source, but it was dark brown. She would pour a small amount of baking soda into the palm of her left hand, wet the frayed end of the twig and dip it into the baking soda before brushing her teeth. She still had her teeth when she died. That's her smiling in the picture above.
Investigating the history of toothbrushes and dental hygiene, I ran across some techniques that sound yucky blucky. But you do what ya gotta do, right? In England, wiping your teeth with a rag dipped in salt or soot, believe it or not, was popular. Wiping your teeth with a sponge soaked in brandy was recommended in France. Chew sticks were widespread several thousand years ago, especially in the Middle East and the Far East. Early toothpastes in the west were often made from talc or crushed seashells. Not exactly gentle on the teeth. I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t clean their teeth at all. Think of all the bad breath!
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