Most of us brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. Did you know that as a widespread practice, this a fairly modern one?
It’s not that the toothbrush is new.
By the 15th century, Chinese healers had created a toothbrush with a handle made of bone or bamboo; they attached stiff bristles found on the back of a hog’s neck. French dentists promoted toothbrush use in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The US Patent Office granted the Wadsworth toothbrush its first toothbrush patent in 1857.
Until the 1920s, many US pharmacies imported natural bristle toothbrushes in bulk from Japan. Wholesale drug manager T. Woodside and Dr. George N. West, then dean of the Kansas City Dental College and president of the International Dental Association, collaborated to produce a sterile American toothbrush “wrapped in a sealed glassine envelope.”
In the 1940s, most Americans did not brush their teeth regularly. During World War II, military actively encouraged oral health. The American military included a plastic toothbrush with nylon bristles in its kit for soldiers, airmen and sailors. When WWII ended, they brought their tooth-brushing habits home.
The Dental Service was also an important part of the war effort, deploying about 18,000 dentists.
Men who had had dental reconstructive services in the war entered the postwar job market healthier and more confident. Techniques and treatments pioneered near the battlefield—such as the use of penicillin to fight oral infections—were applied to civilian use. The very idea that dental care is an important part of overall healthcare, impacting such other systems as the cardiovascular and digestive, became routine, and it continues to this day.
Today, there is a nascent movement to return to toothbrushes with wooden handles and natural bristles. However, science is on the side of the electric toothbrush for superior oral health.