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The History of Teeth Cleaning

Posted on April 23rd, 2015 by Dr. Nikoo Daftary

history-of-teeth-cleaningFrom Cavemen to Modern Man

Have you ever stood at the mirror in the morning, frothy peppermint foaming from your mouth as you vigorously brushed your teeth after breakfast, and wondered how your ancestors ever survived before the dawn of modern dental hygiene? You’re correct to wonder – the toothpaste and toothbrush we take for granted, as well as the myriad mouthwashes and flosses, weren’t the commodities they are today throughout ancient history.
So what did a more antiquated form of dental hygiene look like? How did the monarchs of kingdoms past get that fuzzy feeling off of what teeth remained in their mouths past the age of 25? It depends on where and when in history we’re talking about, but as you’ll see, we’ve come a long way.
Dating mouth and teeth cleaning technologies as far back as possible, early cave drawings suggest Stone Age man fashioned toothpicks out of wood and bone to likely remove errant berries, meat, and seeds from in between teeth. As time passed, people began using herbs and spices like spearmint and ginger to prevent halitosis (bad breath), as well as chewing on abrasive grains to remove plaque buildup.
“Dentifrice” as we know it today comes in the form of toothpaste, but it wasn’t always so. Merriam-Webster defines dentifrice as “a powder, paste, or liquid for cleaning the teeth”, or really just anything that gets your whites pearly. The oldest dentifrice known to man are believed to have been dated around 5000 B.C. and were likely used in Ancient China, Egypt, and India. These ancient oral concoctions consisted of rough ingredients like dried flowers, ashes, myrrh, honey, and pepper.
But what about the cleaning utensils? Where did the toothbrush originate from? The earliest known predecessors, and perhaps what you could call the original toothbrush, was used by the Ancient Babylonians between 3500-3000 B.C. and consisted of a small stick or twig with a frayed, softened end. Similar tools of the same era were found to be used by Egyptians as well.
However, like all things, dental hygiene tools and cleaning solutions became better over time. Instead of sticks and twigs, the Chinese devised a toothbrush with animal hair bristles in the 1400s, in turn teaching the Europeans a thing or two about dental care and inspiring the creation of brushes made with horsehair or feathers.
Four centuries later, tooth powder became in vogue for most Europeans, although not all were privileged to own a toothbrush. Those who didn’t own one simply used a finger or a piece of cloth as a makeshift brush. The powder itself still remained a rough mixture of substances as well, sometimes full of abrasives like chalk, salt, brick dust, or charcoal that would have left people better off not brushing at all!
However, the 19th century also saw the beginnings of what we now recognize to be our modern day tools of personal dental hygiene. The common toothbrush was finally patented in 1857, and the year 1892 saw the dawn of toothpaste in the ingenious packaging of a collapsable tube.
We’ve come a long way since early man picked at his molars with sharpened rabbit bones, but ironically scientists and archeologists have found that people from earlier times typically had fewer incidences of tooth decay. This was likely due to the absence of the hyper-sugary foods and beverages we have in abundance today. While this was nice for our ancestors, if those teeth did start to go bad, the only option was to pull them.
So next time you’re exhausted and want to go to bed without flossing or brushing your teeth, simply be glad that you can do so with cheap, clean, effective products without putting a dirty stick and a peppery, chalky powder in your mouth that would only cause you to probably lose your teeth anyways. It’s good to live in the 21st century, isn’t it?

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