Who Invented the Toothpick?

The Toothpick Is One of the Few Inventions That Predates Modern Humans

HuttyMcphoo/Creative Commons

Thanks to the humble toothpick, taking care of your oral hygiene after meals has become somewhat of a ritual. With needle-like precision, it makes removing unseemly pieces of food debris, such as that stubborn sliver of shredded chicken, a thoroughly satisfying task. So who should we thank for it?

In the Beginning, it was DIY

The toothpick is one of the few inventions being used today that predates the arrival of modern humans.

Fossil evidence of ancient skulls, for instance, suggests that early Neanderthals used tools to pick their teeth. Scientists have also found tooth indentations indicative of teeth picking in human remains among Australian Aborigines, prehistoric native Americans and the earliest Egyptians.  

The practice of teeth picking was not uncommon among early civilizations, too. Mesopotamians used instruments to keep dental crevices clear and artifacts such as toothpicks made out of silver, bronze and various other precious metals that date back to antiquity have also been unearthed. By the Medieval period, carrying a gold or silver toothpick in a fancy case became a way for privileged Europeans to distinguish themselves from commoners.

The toothpick wasn’t always quite the lowly, mass-produced and disposable piece of wood that we’ve come to know today. Queen Elizabeth once received six gold toothpicks as a gift and would often showcase them.

There’s even an anonymous portrait depicting her as an old woman wearing multiple chains around her neck, from which hung a gold toothpick or a case.

Meanwhile, those who couldn’t afford such luxuries resorted to more creative ways of fashioning their own toothpicks. The Romans came up with a particularly clever method by pulling bird feathers, chopping off the quill and sharpening the tip.

The technique was passed on to future generations in Europe and eventually carried over to the new world. Over in the Americas, native peoples carved toothpicks from deer bone. And just up north, Eskimos used walrus whiskers.

Coincidentally, wood was generally considered unsuitable for the purpose of dislodging trapped food bits. Twigs from trees were inadequate because they tended to wear down when wet and had a propensity to splinter, which tended to be problematic. One exception is the mastic gum tree of southern Europe, with the Romans among the first to take advantage of the plant’s pleasant aroma and its teeth whitening properties.

A Toothpick for the Masses

With the ubiquity of tooth picking tools across the world, it was only a matter of time before an industry was built around them. As small businesses specializing in toothpick manufacturing began to pop up, demand for toothpicks also grew. American entrepreneur named Charles Forster.

The mass production of toothpicks can be traced to the Mondego River Valley in Portugal. It was there, in the small municipality of Coimbra, that the 16th century nuns of the Mos-teiro de Lorvão monastery began making toothpicks as a disposable utensil for picking up sticky confections that tended to leave residue on fingers and teeth.

Locals eventually picked up the tradition, using only the finest orangewood and a jackknife to handcraft the toothpicks.

The region would over time earn a reputation as the world capital of the toothpick industry where the finest toothpicks were made. Orders soon came in from all over Europe and shipment were sent out as far overseas as the Americas. The Portuguese were especially renowned for a special type of cocktail tooth called “palitos especiales” distinct for their carved involutes and curly shafts. In the U.S., some vendors seek to mimic the classy, festive aesthetic with toothpicks topped with colored cellophane.

Toothpicks in America

The American entrepreneur Charles Forster was particularly impressed by the high quality of the toothpicks in South America. While working in Brazil, he noticed that the locals often had impeccable teeth and credited it to the use of imported toothpicks from Portugal.

Inspired by fellow American Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant’s shoe-making machine, Forster got to work on building something similar that would be capable of mass-producing millions of toothpicks a day.

While he was ultimately able to come up with the goods, Americans simply weren’t interested. Part of the problem was that Americans were already accustomed to whittling their own toothpicks and doling out cash for something that can easily make themselves made little sense at the time. What was needed was a sea change in ingrained lifestyle habits and attitudes if there was any hope of generating demand.

Forster just so happened to be crazy enough to take on such a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Some of the unusual marketing tactics he employed included hiring students to pose as store customers seeking toothpicks and instructing Harvard students to ask for them whenever they dined at restaurants. Soon enough, many local eateries would make sure toothpicks were available for patrons who somehow developed a habit of reaching for them as they’re about to leave.

Though it was Forster who at the time nearly singlehandedly established a growing market for mass-produced wooden toothpicks, there were a few others jockeying to get into the game. In 1869, Alphons Krizek, of Philadelphia, received a patent for an “improvement in toothpicks,” which featured a hooked end with spoon-shaped mechanism designed to clean out hollow and sensitive teeth. Other attempted “improvements” include a case for a retractable toothpick and a scented coating meant to freshen one’s breath.

  

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were literally billions of toothpicks made each year. In 1887, the count got as high as five billion toothpicks, with Forster accounting for more than half of them. And by the end of the century, there was one factory in Maine that was already making that many.  

Toothpicks Not Just for Picking Teeth

With the commercialized ubiquity of disposable wooden toothpicks, the concept of the toothpick as status symbol, which stubbornly persisted well into 19th century, would slowly begin to fade. Silver and gold toothpicks, once immensely popular amongst society’s most well-heeled elites, were increasingly turned in as donations at fundraisers.

But that doesn’t mean a toothpick’s usefulness was simply relegated to oral hygiene. Most people, for instance, are familiar with the use of toothpicks in social settings where eau d'oeuvres and other finger foods are served. Yet they’ve also proved capable of pinning down overstuffed deli sandwiches, cleaning dirt from underneath fingernails, and even picking locks.

While the standard toothpick of today remains essentially unchanged from the ones Forster was cranking out over a century ago, entrepreneurs still seek to improve upon its very basic iteration. One early attempt by Forster and others to make them more appealing was the introduction of flavored toothpicks. Popular flavors included cinnamon, wintergreen and sassafras. For a time, there were even liquor flavors, such as Scotch and Bourbon.

Inventors have also tested other coatings such as imbuing sticks with zinc as a disinfectant.

Another therapeutic approach involved combining a toothpick and a gum massager. Others have tried tinkering with the shape by making the center square as a way to prevent rolling when dropped while some newer ones claim to offer enhanced cleaning ability with the addition of brush-like bristles to the head.

Though such efforts to build a better toothpick may arguably yield some advantages, there's something about the toothpick’s modest simplicity that makes it so users don't have much of a desire to deviate. A disposable, cheap object with a simple design that achieves its desired goal, you really couldn’t ask for more — as a consumer or as a manufacturer.