The Strange History of the Toothpick: Neanderthal Tool, Deadly Weapon, and Luxury Possession
A toothpick – the go-to little tool you select after a meal of corn on the cob, an object you absentmindedly chew on while listening to an unremarkable conversation, the piece of wood you carelessly toss away…this everyday item actually has a rather interesting history behind it.
The toothpick is an unassuming utensil that many surely take for granted today. Yet, the history behind this humble tool stretches far back into history, and perhaps even further into pre-history. The status of the toothpick changed over the ages, and it was even elevated to great heights at certain times and places. When the toothpick began to be mass-produced on an industrial scale during the 19th century, it became a household item.
A toothpick – just an unassuming utensil? (CC BY SA 2.5)
The Oldest Toothpicks
At present, physical evidence of prehistoric toothpicks has yet to be uncovered by archaeologist. These tools were most likely made of materials that would have long decomposed, such as wood. Nevertheless, there are signs that such an implement was used extensively by Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. Researchers studying prehistoric skulls have inferred that our ancestors were using some kind of tool on a regular basis to clean their teeth. This may be seen, for example, in the hominid remains dating to about 1.8 million years ago from the site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. According to researchers, on the root of a tooth in one jawbone, there were scratch marks reflecting the shape of the toothpick. It has been suggested that the inflammation there was caused by repeated tooth-picking.
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Casting of a Homo Georgicus skull, found at Dmanisi, Georgia. (Public Domain)
Assassin’s Tool and Luxury Item
Moving ahead in time, the toothpick is known to have been used by various ancient civilisations. The use of toothpicks in the ancient world is attested to in the literary sources. As an example, according to Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Greek historian, Agathocles, a tyrant of Syracuse, was assassinated as a result of using a toothpick smeared with poison. Moreover, toothpicks from this time period have been preserved in the archaeological record, as they were often made of more durable materials, such as bone, or precious metals.
The choice of material for the production of toothpicks in the ancient world is a reflection of the high status that this instrument enjoyed. This continued into the Medieval period, when carrying a gold or silver toothpick around in a stylish case was one of the many ways that upper class Europeans distinguished themselves from the masses. In fact, the toothpick remained a status symbol all the way into the second half of the 19th century. Louise Marie Thérèse d'Artois, a Duchess of Parma who lived during the 19th century, for example, had, as part of her dowry, a dozen valuable toothpicks.
A luxury toothpick with ruby, pearl, and gold elements. (The British Museum)
For a Sweet Tooth
Interestingly, toothpicks had already been mass produced since the 16th century, though not on an industrial scale. This innovation has been attributed to the nuns of the Mosteiro de Lorvão in Coimbra, Portugal. Instead of being used for cleaning the teeth, however, the disposable toothpicks produced by the nuns were meant to pick up sticky confectionaries which would otherwise have left a mess on the fingers. Presumably, the toothpicks were also used to clean any residue left in the teeth after the sweets were consumed.
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This area in Portugal eventually became renowned for the high-quality toothpicks they produced, and toothpicks from the region were exported around Europe and the Americas. It was during the 19th century that an American entrepreneur by the name of Charles Forster came across these Portuguese imports whilst working in Brazil.
Making a Massive Toothpick Market
Seeing an opportunity for making money, Forster began working on a machine that would be able to produce toothpicks on an industrial scale. Whilst the entrepreneur’s machine was capable of producing up to a million toothpicks a day, there was a lack of demand in the USA for his product. One of the reasons for this was that Americans were used to producing their own toothpicks, albeit on a small scale, and it did not make sense to them to pay for something they could easily make. Forster, however, did not give up, and eventually succeeded in opening up a market for his toothpicks. Thus, the toothpick changed from a luxury object to a household item that can be easily found in stores around the world today.
By Wu Mingren
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