Within the last few centuries, the world has seen a vast number of important, and often life-changing, ‘firsts’. From the Magna Charter signed in 1215 to the first world circumnavigation expedition in the 1500s, the acceptance of the concept of evolution in the 1800s, and the first man on the moon in 1969, we have many achievements to celebrate.
Looking at item inventions from Britain alone, a wide range of innovations has helped mould the world as we know it today. From the first steam engine, to the electric motor, waterproof material, cement, flushing toilet, lawnmower, sewage system, electric vacuum cleaner, TV and the world wide web: the list is pretty extensive!
Perhaps a lesser-known British ‘first’ is that of toothbrush production for the masses, and you may be surprised to learn that you have a prisoner to thank for your clean teeth.
A brief history of the toothbrush
Early forms of what has become a hygiene necessity can be found as far back as 3,000 BC, in Egypt (Panati, 1989) and Babylonia (Zhou, 2013). Ancient civilisations are thought to have used ‘chew sticks’ made from Salvadora Persica branches. As the name suggests, these were simply thin twigs with frayed ends that were rubbed against the teeth and, later on, the other end was often used as a toothpick to remove food debris. Other examples of early dental hygiene adjuncts discovered in various excavations around the world include bird feathers, animal bones and porcupine quills.
By the 11th century, it is believed that people used wine to rinse their mouths and chewed herbs to freshen their breath. Rosemary charcoal wrapped in linen is thought to have been rubbed against the teeth a few centuries later, and teeth whitening remedies involving a mixture of strong vinegar, alum, salt and honey have also been documented.
Around the 15th century, the Chinese are believed to have used the first ‘bristle’ toothbrush, made of a bamboo stick with hog hair tied to one end. While a select few of the wealthier travellers in Europe reported having come across the device, there were no forms of the toothbrush available or suitable for the majority of the UK.
The toothbrush as we know and love today, wasn’t created for the masses until the late 18th century, when William Addis landed behind bars at England’s Newgate prison for inciting a riot. While most probably wouldn’t think of a prison as a particularly clean and hygienic place, William’s entrepreneurial skills were clearly honed with a little extra time on his hands.
He used a bone saved from a prison meal and bored tiny holes into one end. Taking hard bristle hairs from around the prison, he then tied them into the holes within the bone creating his own modern toothbrush. When William left prison in around 1780, he became the first to start mass-producing toothbrushes from carved cattle bones with mounted boar or horsehair brittles. He introduced the concept of modern oral hygiene to the masses, and subsequently died a very wealthy man.
The modern day toothbrush
With the invention of nylon in 1937 by Wallace H Carothers (this time from the USA), William’s toothbrush design was updated with new bristles and the dental cleaning tool as we know it has changed little since.
The modern toothbrush is widely recognised as the most important adjunct for a high standard of oral hygiene, which today we also understand can contribute to good general health. The battle now, is not regarding the effectiveness of the tools we have, but the public awareness of, and compliance with, good health habits.
As far back as the 11th century, people were advised to clean their teeth twice a day and yet everyone still doesn't adhere to this today. Of course, oral health is miles ahead of where it was nearly a millennium ago, but with an estimated 25% of the UK population still not brushing twice daily (British Dental Health Foundation, 2014), there is certainly still room for improvement.
As the provision of dentistry has developed, so have the techniques, technologies and adjuncts used to achieve and maintain oral health. Products available on the modern market have been specially tailored to produce the best results for everyone. For example, there are now toothbrushes such as the CS 5460 ultra soft from Curaprox, crafted especially to provide a highly efficient, yet gentle clean for sensitive teeth and gingiva. Utilising the latest developments in materials, these toothbrushes use Curen filaments on a small and compact head to provide an unparalleled clean.
Clearly, we have come a long way in the last few centuries in every area, and oral health is certainly no different. If we can change from rubbing our teeth with charcoal to specially designed toothbrushes in a few hundred years, who knows what will be available in the future!
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