A Class Action

“Yet, notwithstanding its importance, there is, perhaps, no part of our toilet-duties wich are so generally neglected, or so carelessly performed, as those relating to the teeth.  It is no exaggeration to say that, taking the whole community there are few, very  few, who clean their teeeth, or even wash thier mouths, once a day.  With the masses, the operation, if performed at all, is confined to the Sabbath-day, or to holidays, Whilst re, educated and cleanly persons, regard the operation of cleaning the teeth as a daily duty, as necessary as washing the face and hands, the dirty and vulgar–the two words here synonymous—wholly neglect it, and too often even consider it as unnecessary, effeminate and absurd.” Arnold J. Cooley, The Toilet In Ancient and Modern Times, Philadelphia, 1873


Early 20th century education taught the importance of oral hygiene, and made tooth-brushing more common. “Toothbrush corner in the home of Mr. Robert McWhorter, Negro tenant purchase FSA (Farm Security Administration) client. Woodville, Greene County, Georgia” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC

The authors of medical treatises often connected personal hygiene to social and economic status.  One ladies manual stressed care of the teeth,  because they “lose their value if a beautiful and good set of teeth does not enhance your bloom.” Here, the target audience was upper class women with time and money to spend on personal appearance. Tooth-brushing, like many personal hygiene routines, was practiced by middle and upper class Americans.

By the late 19th century, tooth-brushing became an activity connected personal hygeine to social mobility for working-class Americans and members of racial minorities.  At the Tuskegee Institute, tooth-brushing was required.  School rules stated that “no student is permitted to remain who does not own and use” a toothbrush.


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