While our Placerville dentists do not recommend the use of toothpicks on a regular basis, sometimes this simple wooden tool is the only thing handy for removing an annoying piece of food. What is the commercial history of this ancient instrument? How are they made?
According to Slate Magazineand author Henry Petroski’s The Toothpick, toothpicks were first marketed extensively in the United States by Charles Forster. After a visit to Brazil where he noticed the natives had nice teeth — presumably due to commonly using handmade toothpicks — he decided to go into automated toothpick manufacturing. The key to the system was an invention by fellow Bostonian Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant. Forster purchased the rights to Sturtevant’s machine, which made pegs out of wood veneer. After enlisting the help of a mechanic, Charles Freeman, to adapt the machine for toothpicks, by 1869 Forster had plenty of wooden product on his hands!
Next — Marketing the Toothpick
In the 1800’s it was relatively difficult to sell a product that people tended to carve for themselves with a pocketknife. Forster met the challenge by entering shops and asking if they’d like to sell his pre-made toothpicks. If the answer was no, a few days later he sent people into the shop to ask for them! Then he would return sometime later to find a newly willing retailer. He did the same thing in restaurants, hiring people to ask for toothpicks after a meal and to complain if they were not available. Soon, much of Boston was cleaning its teeth with toothpicks and the rest is truly history.
Manufacturing the Toothpick
Birch wood is considered the best material for toothpicks. As mentioned earlier, after removing the bark on a lathe that also makes the wood perfectly round, a birch log is carved into thin strips of veneer. These strips are then sent through a cutter which rapidly chops the veneer into thousands of toothpicks. After time in a rotating dryer, the wooden picks are smoothed down by rolling around in a drum containing talcum powder. The result is either boxed or individually wrapped for use in restaurants.
So when you don’t have all the other better types of instruments for cleaning teeth, the toothpick may be available. Although someone probably would have marketed them sooner or later, you can thank Sturtevant, Forster and Freeman for the prevalence of this common dental tool! (And for hints on how to use toothpicks safely, read our article on the subject.)