So, this all started, as such things are apt to do, with a nagging uncertainty as I cleaned my teeth. You see, I am aware, obviously, that only we humans have ever taken to cleaning our teeth, but I didn’t know why and I didn’t know when – although working in a very small shop, I am undoubtedly grateful for it anyway – so, as usual. I set about trying to find out.
Evidence shows that tooth brushing (teeth brushing?) began with all of the usual suspects: the Babylonians and the Egyptians in 3,000 BC and the Chinese in 1,600 BC – although quite why the Chinese were so late to the party on this occasion I am not at all certain – perhaps the invites were printed in Taiwan. Also, I think you may need to allow a fair degree of latitude in your definition of ‘brushing’ as it was generally carried out with a pointed stick which became frayed with use. Knowing how annoying a tiny sliver of sweetcorn can be when caught between the teeth, I can only imagine the discomfort caused by a small log. Surely splinters would have been an issue. One thing for certain, if I tried to ram a stick into the gaps between my teeth these days, those gaps would become exponentially wider. Unless I was meeting somebody particularly hot, I think I might have left mine alone.
The need for humans to brush the teeth started, apparently, with the shift from hunter-gathering into farming and the consequent increase in the carbohydrates we began to consume, so I am guessing that its arrival of probably coincided with the dawn of fad dieting and the need to balance raw sinew with something green and disgusting. Carbohydrates – which include sugars – basically amount to ‘everything nice’, and as soon as we started to eat them, our teeth were doomed. As an ancient Briton, it is probably fitting that my teeth resemble a Neolithic Stone Circle, propped up with assorted forms of iromongery and full of spaces where the local farmer has taken stones away to block the gateway used by the ramblers. Each summer the Druids gather around my face to witness the dawn sun reflecting off my amalgam.
Bristle brushes were first used by the Chinese in 1498. Why the date is so precise I do not know. Perhaps they have found an early edition of Dragon’s Den with a terrified entrepreneur grasping his bamboo cane and hog bristle contraptions in the hope of removing something particularly loathsome from Deborah Meaden’s mouth. Hog bristle was used in toothbrushes until the invention of the nylon bristle in 1938, when everybody agreed that a mouth full of pig was not necessarily the best way of freshening the breath anyway. It was only when tooth cleaning was carried into the general public by American soldiers after the Second World War that the practice became widespread. In fact the first mass-produced toothbrush was actually produced in England by William Addis in 1780 and it was not until 1857 that the first American mass-production, by H.N. Wadsworth started – which will come as some surprise to most Americans who view the uneven contents of the average English mouth with something approaching terror. In truth we are now, as in all things, beginning to get our teeth into full American order and everyone on TV looks like their mouth has been filled with startlingly white cinema seats.
In Sudan, 2,000 years ago, the people ate purple nutsedge which had antibacterial properties and warded off cavity-forming bacteria. Nutsedge tastes appaling, so there is little chance that it was eaten as food and it has no narcotic effect, so I think we have to accept that someone noticed the connection between eating nutsedge and not getting toothache – although who decided to eat the bloody stuff in the first place, is not known.
Now, knowing how history works, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that toothpaste was invented long before the tooth brush – presumably by some relation of the man who gave the world Brylcreem at the time when everyone wore a hat. The Egyptians used toothpaste in 5,000 BC without once thinking about ramming it into their mouth on a stick. The Chinese, however, waited until 500 BC, long after they had frayed their sticks, before they started to use toothpaste – but we all know what a spare rib between the molars feels like. Until 1873 when Colgate began to mass-produce the first actual toothpaste, abrasive powders were generally used – the Ancient Greeks and Romans using such ingredients as crushed bones, oyster shells, fine sand, Narwhal tusks and the Elgin Marbles, whilst the Victorians used powders that included charcoal, soot, pumice, gun and the hopes of a generation. Soap was included in almost all toothpaste until 1945, which explains, I suppose, why nobody – except for West Ham Fans* – ever swallowed it. Fluoride was first added to toothpaste in 1914 – which must have offered great peace of mind to those in the trenches of the First World War.
So, to recap: the farmers are to blame for tooth decay; the Chinese are to blame for putting pig’s hair into bamboo and persuading people that it would improve their dental hygiene; the Egyptians are responsible for putting the horse before the cart and the ancient Greeks are responsible for dental care by abrasion – nothing removes plaque quite like wet & dry paper.
This whole piece should take the average reader (with the average tooth quota) one whole tooth cleaning sessions to read. If you are using an electric toothbrush you may be finished sooner. If you are using a pointed stick, stop it!
*This is an exclusively British joke. If you are not British and you don’t understand it, don’t worry. If you are British and don’t understand it, don’t worry either, it’s really not worth the effort.
All of the ‘facts’ contained herein have been laboriously gleaned from the internet. I accept no responsibility whatsoever for the veracity of any of this tosh.