Archive for Monday, February 9, 2015

Anything can have an interesting history, even toothpicks

February 9, 2015

Over the years I’ve come to believe that almost everything that we use has an interesting history and a colorful background. I decided to prove my theory by doing some study on a simple, but useful and necessary object: the toothpick.

I know that the history of the toothpick doesn’t sound all that interesting. Its purpose is to get irritating particles of food from between teeth or to hold up light snacks at parties. Probably the most unique use of a toothpick in Kansas City history was that of U. L. Washington, the Royals’ shortstop. Washington always had a toothpick in his mouth as he patrolled the left side of the infield. As far as I know he is the only ball player that loved toothpicks. By the way, he was a good shortstop.

I have seen toothpicks used in school projects to build miniature bridges or similar models. I remember as a child being warned to never run with a toothpick in my mouth!

I believe the most unique use of toothpicks was in old-time Spain, when young women kept toothpicks in their mouths to ward off unwanted kisses. At one time some ancient religions found dual use for toothpicks. In addition to dental hygiene, they were thought to scare off the devil.

I didn’t realize that the toothpick had such a long history. Their use dates back to the Neanderthals. The Sumerians carried gold toothpicks that were attached to rings around 3000 BC. Bronze toothpicks as well as swords were used in the ancient Bronze Age.

In 1986, researchers found the remains of a Native American dating back 7,500 years, and there were holes between the teeth which they believe were caused by use of primitive toothpicks.

The toothpick was around well before the invention of toothbrushes, and they were the first instruments used to clean teeth. Both the Greeks and Romans used quills as toothpicks. They also learned to carve toothpicks from wood. The toothpick really became popular in the 17th century as a “portable” dental hygiene device. You could stick it your pocket and always have it with you.

At one time toothpicks were a status symbol and were often made of precious metal and decorated with tiny jewels. I read that one of the marketing schemes used in the 1800s to boost toothpick sales was to send a well-dressed man to a fancy restaurant. The man would throw a loud and angry fit when he was told the establishment did not have toothpicks. It wasn’t long before a toothpick salesman popped in with his order book in hand.

The modern toothpick is usually made of wood, plastic or bamboo. Wood is cut into thin sheets and then milled into the tiny, useful toothpick. Normally white birch wood is used in the manufacturing process.

The first automated toothpick manufacturing machine was invented by Marc Sigoielo in 1869. Another toothpick manufacturing machine was patented by Silas Noble and J. P. Cooley in 1872. The center of toothpick manufacturing factories was in Maine, probably due to the abundance of wood. Obviously business was good because at one time 29 billion toothpicks were sold in the United States. As is the case with so many industries, the market was captured by China and other Oriental countries, and the final toothpick factory in the United States closed in 2003.

The history of the toothpick is ancient and fascinating. As I said in the beginning, everything has an interesting past, even the most simple and inexpensive. I doubt a day goes by when most Americans don’t look for a toothpick.


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