Our main task during the two minutes it takes for a battery-powered toothbrush to rid our pearly whites of plaque is to try not to drool. It’s a pretty cushy exercise — and one that’s become commonplace only recently.
As with so many things in modern life, the design has allowed us to be lazy. The electric toothbrush is one more device that tells us: “Chill the heck out. I’ve got this.”
It wasn’t always this way. Before the toothbrush worked for us, we had to work for a toothbrush. For thousands of years, a plain old stick was the instrument used to get one’s mouth in order. The end of a twig was smashed until the wood’s fibres began to separate. Once frayed, the stick was used to slough off tooth gunk. When sour breath was a concern, people selected sticks with aromatic qualities. Sure, it was a solution, but not one specifically suited to the maze of our mouths.
A brush with actual bristles was first invented in the late 1400s in China. The dedicated scrapers were plucked from the neck of a hog — where the hairs are most rigid — and affixed to a bamboo or bone handle. If slightly painful, the scouring action not only grabbed what was on the tooth’s surface, but it disengaged crud stuck between as well.
England’s William Addis designed the first mass produced model in 1780 while serving a prison sentence for starting riots. Addis threaded horsehair through small holes he made in an animal bone, securing the hairs to the head of the brush with a wire. When he got out, Addis’s brushes became quite popular-even with his former prison guards. That’s said to be Napolean’s, above, from approximately the same time period.
Hog’s or horse’s hair continued to be the main material for bristles until DuPont entered the picture in 1938. Just three years after DuPont’s Wallace Carothers patented nylon, the company released bristles fashioned out of the new material. Nylon was clearly superior to the animal-sprouted options, and it caught on quickly. Synthetic bristles were soon available in a variety of rigidities, which allowed people with, say, sensitive gums to have a brush that was designed specifically for their mouth.
A quick side note about brushing trends: Even with the invention of a better material for scraping teeth, the masses still didn’t integrate brushing into a twice daily routine until the 1940s. It wasn’t until World War II when Americans, inspired by the oral hygiene regimen required of their boys fighting abroad, finally got on the regular brushing wagon.
With more enthusiasm and better materials, the toothbrush started to take on a more personalised form. Today, for instance, DuPont makes more than a dozen riffs on the bristle, including diamond-shaped filaments, bristles made for better toothpaste retention, and synthetic hairs with antimicrobial additives to keep bacteria away.
But now back to the business of getting our toothbrush to work better while working for us. It started with the US’s first electric variety, called the Broxodent, which was released in 1960 for people with poor motor skills. The idea was that only people who needed help would use it. Perhaps that’s why it took a while for mass adoption of plug-in versions. But as the tech improved and electric brushes went super-scrubbing and sonic, it became clear that these machines were not only putting the spastic motion of our hands to shame, but they were also making our lives easier while doing it. Gotta love a gadget that’s turns laziness into productivity.