The toothbrush is so ubiquitous in American homes of the twenty-first century that it would be difficult to imagine anyone unable to identify it. Today it is made of plastic, with a 5 to 6 inch handle, and neat, even rows of perfectly spaced plastic bristles. Dental hygiene and tooth-brushing become a daily part of the typical American life shortly after the first teeth appear in a child’s mouth. Tooth-brushing is so engrained in our daily lives that rarely does one question how the tools came about to facilitate the habit.
The toothbrush that we recognize today was developed for large-scale manufacture around 1780. In its basic form, it has undergone few lasting design changes. Although toothbrushes seem simple, the story behind, their manufacture and distribution is complex, spanning the Atlantic Ocean. Bone toothbrushes were made using animal bones and bristles, organic materials which existed only in finite amounts and had to be sourced from around the world. They were manufactured by skilled craftsmen, largely without the aid of machinery. Throughout nineteenth century, most consumers considered toothbrushes a luxury (if they thought of them at all), while medical experts of the day debated the necessity and even the safety of their use. The early history of the toothbrush makes their ubiquity in American homes today surprising.