Lab Update and Artifact of the Day for May 15th, 2018 — Bone Toothbrush

Heavier rain than expected drove us into the lab today, which was probably a good thing as we had a massive backlog of artifact washing to tackle. We had Marit join us again today to help with artifact processing.

I am happy to say our crew are superstars and we managed to record all the material we washed last lab day, and we have every single artifact recovered to date washed and drying on racks awaiting cataloguing. Hooray! It was also a good time to sort out some context issues and so Dan and Nic started to draw the Harris Matrix of stratigraphy for the site.

Emma works on cataloguing material from the midden.
Emma works on cataloguing material from the midden.
Sarah and Collette worked on cataloguing some surface finds.
Sarah and Collette worked on cataloguing some surface finds.
Jodie, Caedda, Stephanie, Marit, Dan, Katie, Wayne, Danny and Brooke kept the trays filled!
Jodie, Caedda, Stephanie, Marit, Dan, Katie, Wayne, Danny and Brooke kept the trays filled!
James retreated to the truck to do some work, as we took over all the rooms in the Arch Centre today, including his office!
James retreated to the truck to do some work, as we took over all the rooms in the Arch Centre today, including his office!

Charlotte cleaning the toothbrush.This discovery of this bone toothbrush sparked a lot of questions (and disgusted reactions) about dental hygiene in the past. I couldn’t resist a photo of Charlotte cleaning a toothbrush with a toothbrush, how meta is that?

While people have rinsed their mouths with water, wine, or vinegar or used rags to clean their teeth for millennia, the first “toothbrushes” were sticks that would be chewed on at one end to split the wood fibres into a brush-like end that could be used to clean the teeth.

The other end was often sharpened into a point to make a tooth pick. The next innovation was choosing aromatic or nice-tasting sticks that would be pleasingly astringent or flavourful. Toothbrushes similar to what we use today were made of bamboo and hog bristles and used for centuries in China, but for whatever reason they just didn’t catch on in the West.

Toothpaste in collapsible tubes was not available until the 1890s and didn’t surpass tooth powder in popularity until nearly 1920.

There are several recipes for tooth powders from the 18th and 19th century, but I don’t know if you would want to follow some of these recipes. Some were so caustic it was only recommended that they be used every few months! Others use chemicals like borax which we think of more as a laundry additive as opposed to a tooth-whitener. Still others had abrasives like chalk, charcoal and pulverised brick!

A 19th century London Times advertisement promised an assortment of wonderful results for those who used tooth powder:

For the TEETH. Patronized and used by his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. TROTTER’s ORIENTAL DENTIFRICE, or ASIATIC TOOTH POWDER, had been for 20 years acknowledged by the most respectable Medical authorities, used by many, and recommended. The Powder cleanses and beautifies the teeth, sweetens the breath, posses no acid that can erode the enamel, and puts a beautiful polish on the teeth. From its astringency, it strengthens the gums, eradicates the scurvy (which often proves the destruction of a whole set of teeth), preserves sound teeth from decay, secures decayed teeth from becoming worse, fastens those which are loose, and proves the happy means of preventing their being drawn.

Tooth powder was often applied using rags until the first commercial toothbrush was made around 1780 by William Addis of Clerkenwald, UK. William Addis was a ragpicker by trade, which means he collected rags and cloth scraps which were then pulped and used to make high-quality paper, which was sold to scriveners and bookmakers.

History says he was arrested in 1770 for rioting in Spitalfields and thrown into Newgate prison, and while there decided that cleaning his teeth using a rag and some brick dust was not the best way. He saved a piece of bone from his prison slops, drilled holes in one end, and was inspired by watching the charwomen sweeping to get some bristles from his Keepers and thread them through the holes and glue them in place.

Now I think this story is pretty ridiculous, mainly because of access to drills and lengths of bone (which could be potential shivs!), and wire, and glue, and boar bristles while in prison! Nevertheless, when released he began to manufacture toothbrushes from a workshop in Whitechapel and later on Radnor St., Hoxton. While apparently there were 53 individual steps to manufacturing each toothbrush, here is a brief summary:

Addis would source the bone for the handles from lengths of the shaft of bullock or ox thigh bones purchased from butchers (the ends of the bones were sawn off and sold to make buttons!). Once boiled and bleached, they were cut into strips of different sizes (he was a master of marketing and had big ones for Men, smaller ones for Ladies, smaller still for Children, and an even teenier one called Tom Thumb). From there, the head and neck would be carved into shape, and the head drilled with holes for the bristles.

Badger hair was the mark of a true conoisseur, but Addis also imported boar and sow bristles from Russia, Bulgaria, France and Poland.

At this point, the blanks were sent out to be filled with bristles as piecework. He would contract to women working from their homes in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and pay them only for each piece that passed his standards. This meant the burden of cost for tools, time, and materials was on the women workers up front, and they did not get paid unless the goods were deemed perfect.

Addis toothbrush ad.It is no surprise that he quickly became exceedingly rich, and there were Addis family members running the Addis and Wisdom brands in the UK until the late 1990s. A pretty good run!

Even though Addis was the first commercial toothbrush, others quickly jumped on the bandwagon and registered their own patent designs.

In general early toothbrushes all had cattle bone handles, and bored holes in the head. Bristles were held in place with a thin wire. The wire was either seated into grooves carved into the back of the head that would be filled by wax, or was fished through holes drilled into the top of the head. These holes were first drilled by hand, so they will tend to not fall in a regular, ordered pattern, and often the holes vary in size and shape.

Another way that toothbrushes can tell us about time is the shape of the handle in relation to the head and neck. Some researchers have created a typology, or system of sorting the shape of toothbrushes in relation to their rough time period of popularity.

The toothbrush we found on site. It says "EXTRA FINE" on the handle.
The toothbrush we found on site. It says “EXTRA FINE” on the handle.

Early toothbrushes are often “cranked”, which means they are either convex or concave. Convex cranking is when the horizontally-held brush has the head angling away from the user’s face. This was most common up until 1884, but drops out of favour by the 1920s. Concave cranking is rarely seen before 1884. Brushes with no cranking appear as early as 1840, but most appear to have been manufactured post-1870. Our piece is not cranked at all.

1857 Patent Application from the United States Patent Office registered by H.N. Wadsworth.
1857 Patent Application from the United States Patent Office registered by H.N. Wadsworth.
Boar and badger hair bone toothbrushes.
Boar and badger hair bone toothbrushes.

 Shortages in the availability of boar bristles caused by the war between China (the leading source of bristles) and Japan was solved by the invention of nylon in 1937 at the DuPont Laboratories. This quickly became the bristle of choice and we no longer have badger, horsehair, or boar bristle toothbrushes! Funnily enough, the Addis company was in on this deal and secured the licensing rights to make nylon and polymer bristles in the UK.

The final death knell of bone handled toothbrushes appears to have been World War II. Wartime rationing meant that bones were kept in the home to be boiled down to extract every possible ounce of goodness out of them.

So next time you are brushing your teeth, think a little about the lowly toothbrush and how far we have come!

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