Bits and Bites
A celebration of Oral Hygiene

Oral Exams
Test your dental advertising IQ

Look Ma, No Cavities
A Bite-size history of brushing your teeth

Tooth and Lies
All about toothpaste

Pulling for You
Whole pop dentists' hall of fame and more

Bad Breath
Yours and your dog's

Coming Extractions
Dentists in the movies

Strangers in Dentifrice
From Shanghai to Ceylon to Switzerland

The patron saint of dentists
is St. Apollonia, who reportedly
had her teeth pulled out in
249 AD by an anti-Christian mob.

 A Bite-size history of brushing your teeth
Old Crest ad....
 Look Ma, No Cavities

Hard to believe, but most Americans didn’t brush their teeth until soldiers brought the Army-enforced habit back home from World War II. That’s especially strange, because “chew sticks” twigs with one end frayed into soft bristles have been found in Egyptian tombs going back to about 3000 BC. The first toothpaste developed about the same time, a mixture of ground pumice and wine....

The ancient Romans took teeth-cleaning further, including it as part of some of their religious ceremonies. The patriarchy employed certain slaves, forerunners of modern dental hygienists, to clean their teeth. The also invented the first toothpaste and mouthwash with a secret ingredient: human urine. They especially prized imported Portuguese urine for its strength, but that was probably more a function of evaporation on the long trip to Rome than any ethnic characteristics.

Urine continued to be an active ingredient in toothpastes and mouthwashes until well into the 18th century because its ammonia was a great cleanser. In fact, ammonia continues to be an ingredient in many modern dentifrices, but now manufactured in the laboratory, not the lavatory. Other ingredients in toothpaste over the years included herbs, honey, ground shells, talc, mice, rabbit heads, and lizard livers.

The first toothbrush appeared in China around 1498. The bristles were plucked from hogs living in China’s cold-weather provinces because their hair was stouter and firmer; they were set into handles of bone or bamboo. The Chinese toothbrush traveled to Europe in the 1600s and became widely used.

Dentists discovered the positive effects of fluoride on teeth in 1802 when they noticed that the citizens of fluoride-rich Naples, Italy had brown mottled teeth but few cavities. By the 1840s, some Europeans sucked honey-flavored fluoride lozenges to prevent tooth decay, but the idea of adding the chemical to toothpaste was still a century away. Instead, manufacturers started adding soap in 1824 and chalk in the 1850s. In 1892, Dr. Washington Sheffield of Connecticut was the first to put toothpaste into tubes like those used for oil paint.

The discovery of nylon in 1938 promised to revolutionize the toothbrush just in time for World War II, but the bristles of Dr. West’s Miracle Tuft Toothbrush released that year were stiff enough to be a painful hazard to the gums; it wasn’t until the early 1950s that a safe, soft nylon bristle became the standard. Since then, more than 2,000 toothbrushes have been patented across the world.

For its “Look ma, no cavities” campaign for Crest, Procter & Gamble hired artist Norman Rockwell to illustrate its
magazine ads.

Proctor & Gamble was the first company to put fluoride in toothpaste in 1956. In a brilliant ad campaign that’s still quoted 40 years later, kids ran into the house brandishing notes from their dentist and screaming, “Look ma, no cavities!” Grand Rapids, Michigan had 20 years earlier been the first US city to deliberately add fluoride to city water to reduce cavities. Other cities followed suit to a point that nearly 2/3 of the US population now has fluoridated water, despite warnings from right-wing fearmongers that fluoride was a communist plot to produce a generation of drugged and mind-controlled zombies. (Hm, look around you maybe they were right after all?)

Meanwhile, electric toothbrushes made their way from Switzerland, where they’d been developed immediately after World War II, and first hit the US market in 1960. The latest gimmick is an ultra-sonic toothbrush that is reported to clean between teeth with high-pitched sound waves. Maybe true, but don’t throw away the floss until all the results are in.

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