Dental: Brushing up on the History of Tooth Care

“Toothbrushes through the Ages.”
Credit: The Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry

Quick—Grab your toothbrush. There are only two days left in October, which is National Dental Hygiene Month.

Here are some tools people have used to clean their teeth over the ages:

From left to right: The siwak stick or “chew stick”—a twig with frayed ends—has been used since Babylonian times, particularly among Muslim and African cultures. Taub’s patent toothbrush had a convex, semicircular design made to conform to the tongue side of the teeth. This early 20th-century design was made out of celluloid. A rubber-tipped combination gum stimulator and toothbrush with an aluminum handle, pre-1945. TheStrockway rotary toothbrush was designed with long and short bristle tufts to enable them to go over and in between the teeth as the toothbrush was rolled along the teeth. Circa 1950s.
Dr. Mayland’s toothbrush with rubber points instead of bristles, circa 1920s. The Rotor toothbrush was designed to clean the teeth vertically, circa 1930s.

(Information from the Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry.)

Researchers have even found evidence of prehistoric dental care, though they appear to have been after-the-fact, rather than preventive, procedures:

A New York Times article describes the recent discovery of what appears to be a 6,500-year-old beeswax dental filling. Italian researchers used radiocarbon dating and other techniques to analyze the substance, contained in a cracked tooth from a human jawbone in the collection of the Museum of Natural History in Trieste, Italy. (The jawbone was found in 1911, inside a cave in Slovenia.) Their findings appear in the open-access journal PLoS One.

Dentistry may go back as far as 9,000 years. In 2006 anthropologists found 11 drilled human teeth in an Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan, as reported in this National Geographic News article by Amitabh Avasthi.  (The findings appear in the journal Nature.) Avasthi writes, “The discovery suggests a high level of technological sophistication, though the procedure, which involved drills tipped with shards of flint, could hardly have been a painless affair.”

Ouch. I think I’ll go brush one more time.

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