Teeth Cleaning Before the Brush

In the early 19th century, both medical treatises discussing health of teeth and cosmetic tracts expounding on dental appearances focus largely on the dentifrices, or tooth cleaning powder or paste, and very little on the mode of delivery. Spurious histories assert that a Chinese emperor designed a tooth-specific brush in the thirteenth century, and Queen Elizabeth I of Britain received a toothbrush from France in the sixteenth century, the toothbrush remained an object found in the dressing-rooms of elite and wealthy people. Even after toothbrushes became more widely available in the 1850s, most people could not afford or would not spend hard-earned money on what seemed to be an unnecessary item. People made or found alternatives for toothbrushes and cleaning powders around their households.

Lavatera (Mallow). Digital ID: 1589919. New York Public Library

Marshmallow root was often used to clean the teeth. The root was said to give the user fresh breath. (New York Public Library, George Arents Collection)


People who cleaned their teethoften rubbed a stick or a rag on the surface. Using a marshmallow root to clean the teeth had the added benefit of freshening the breath. Marshmallow could be grown in most European and American climates. The root — boiled, baked and soaked in alcohol — would be rubbed on the teeth in order to cleanse them and remove food debris.





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