What did our ancestors eat to clean their teeth?


How did people clean their teeth before toohtbrushes?“How did people clean their teeth before toohtbrushes?iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In the olden days, man had to get creative to clean his teeth and make his breath less pungent to friends and family. We don’t know who first invented the idea of tooth cleaning, although markings on teeth found in caves dating back to the Stone Age suggest that ancient man used makeshift toothpicks likely fashioned from wood or bone to remove seeds and bone fragments from between his teeth.

The practice of gnawing on aromatic sticks or twigs was probably widespread even before the invention of toothpaste; native herbs like mint and ginger freshened breath, while foods that required lots of chewing promoted salivation. Whole grains also acted as mild abrasives to help remove plaque buildup.

We know that toothpaste was probably invented before the handy toothbrush applicator was devised. The idea of applying dentifrice, a paste or cream to scrape plaque off teeth and help remove food particles, has taken many forms over the years, too. Toothpaste as we know it today is a relatively recent invention from around the late-1800s, but there’s evidence that the goo that refreshes was used as early as 5000 B.C. in China, Egypt and India. Early recipes included ingredients like ground ox hoof, rock salt, myrrh, honey, ground bone, dried iris flowers, pulverized and charred eggshells, pepper, ashes and pumice. Just like today, the mixture was not swallowed [source: Colgate Oral and Dental Research Center].

The ancient Babylonians (3500-3000 B.C.) made wooden toothbrushes by roughening and fraying the ends of sticks and stems, and the Egyptians of the same period used a similar cleaning method. In ancient Greece, Aristotle and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, both wrote about mouth hygiene topics like gum disease and the best method for pulling a diseased tooth, showing dental care was a hot topic even then. The Greeks were fond of masticating mastiche, tree sap that was one of the forerunners of another dental favorite, chewing gum, which can help fight tooth decay [source: Chemical and Engineering News].

Chinese toothbrushes made from animal bristles during the 1400s were design inspiration for later European versions that used feathers and horsehair. Chinese toothpaste ingredients often included salt as a mild abrasive mixed with sweetening and antibacterial ingredients like mint and ginseng.

In 19th century Europe, tooth powders were in widespread use. If you were rich, you probably used a toothbrush; otherwise, you had to rely on your trusty finger or employ a rough piece of cloth. Tooth powder preparations could contain some interesting and potentially destructive ingredients. Many of them had a relatively benign bicarbonate of soda base, but included abrasive or caustic elements or flavor enhancers that were probably more destructive than not brushing at all. Here’s a brief list:

  • Brick dust
  • Crushed shells
  • Cuttlefish
  • Sugar
  • Chalk
  • Salt
  • Pulverized charcoal
  • Borax
  • Ground china

Now, aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century?

The Toothpaste Tube

Toothpaste wouldn’t be the convenient, creamy preparation it is today without a useful applicator, but the toothpaste tube wasn’t invented until 1892. Before that, toothpaste was served up in a jar like face or hand cream, something Washington Wentworth Sheffield, a Connecticut dentist, found untidy and unhygienic. His flexible tube solution caught on, and a revolutionary packaging phenomenon was born [source: Wallechinsky].

Lots More Information

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  • Chemical and Engineering News. "Chewing Gum." (8/17/11). http://pubs.acs.org/cen/whatstuff/85/8532sci2.html
  • Colgate Oral and Dental Research Center. "History of Toothbrushes and Toothpastes." 6/12/06. (8/17/11). http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Oral-Hygiene/Brushing-and-Flossing/article/History-of-Toothbrushes-and-Toothpastes.cvsp
  • Crest 3D White. "A Brief History of Oral Health: What You Should Know." (8/17/11). http://www.3dwhite.com/teeth-whitening/teeth-whitening-systems/brief-history-oral-health.aspx
  • Kidd, Bill E. "History of Dental Care." Great Grins for Kids. 9/4/10. (8/17/11). http://www.greatgrins.net/general/history-of-dental-care/
  • Kid’s Health. "Taking Care of Your Teeth." (8/17/11). http://kidshealth.org/kid/stay_healthy/body/teeth_care.html#
  • Parenting Toddlers. "Toothpaste History." (8/17/11). http://www.parentingtoddlers.com/toothpaste-history.html
  • Silver Collection. "Silver Figural Toothpick Holders of 19th Century." (8/17/11). http://www.silvercollection.it/toothpickholder.html
  • Wallechinsky, David & Irving Wallace. "History and Story Behind Inventions: Toothpaste Tube." The People’s Almanac. (8/17/11). http://www.trivia-library.com/a/history-and-story-behind-inventions-toothpaste-tube.htm
  • Zayan, Meg. "History of Dental Hygiene." Connecticut Dental Hygienists’ Association, Inc. (8/17/11). http://www.cdha-rdh.com/home/historyofdentalhygiene.html


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