It may seem like toothbrushes have always been ubiquitous. After all, people have probably been telling you to use a toothbrush your whole life.
In actuality, the toothbrush as we know it is a relatively modern invention. But that doesn’t mean ancient people didn’t come up with some fairly ingenious methods for freshening up their breath. Here’s a quick look into the rise of the modern toothbrush.
How the Toothbrush Came to Be
The toothbrushes we know and use today have only been around for less than a century: The modern, nylon-bristled toothbrush was invented in 1938. But people have been using tools to clean their teeth for much, much longer.
In fact, it’s possible that earlier versions of the toothbrush were in use as long ago as approximately 3000 BCE. These ancient “toothbrushes” typically consisted of a twig with a frayed end, which people would rub across their teeth in an effort to keep their mouths clean. Many cultures would select twigs from aromatic trees for a breath freshening effect.
These so-called “chew sticks” or “tooth sticks” worked well enough for thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1498 that someone in China patented a modernized version of the toothbrush. This iteration consisted of a bone or bamboo handle topped with stiff bristles derived from boar’s hair.
Boar bristle toothbrushes set the gold standard throughout China and Europe for the next several hundred years (although some Europeans preferred to swap in softer horse hairs). The next major disruption in the toothbrush market didn’t happen until nylon bristles were invented by Dupont de Nemours in 1938.
That’s not to say nothing notable happened between the invention of the boar bristle toothbrush and the nylon bristle toothbrush. In the 17th and 18th centuries, French dentists helped popularize toothbrushes by strongly advocating for their use. In 1780, the first mass-produced toothbrush was developed in England. In 1844, Dr. Meyer Rhein designed the first three-row bristle brush. Meanwhile, mass-produced toothbrushes came to the United States in approximately 1885, and the first U.S. patent for a toothbrush was granted in 1857. Once the nylon bristle toothbrush was released in 1938, toothbrushes further exploded in popularity.
While it took thousands of years for the modern toothbrush to be invented, since then innovation in oral hygiene has taken off like a wildfire. These days, there’s a huge range of toothbrushes on the market, from electric and “smart” varieties to eco-friendly brushes.
But even in the face of all that innovation, some people still choose to utilize boar bristle toothbrushes—often to great effect. Which just goes to show that brushing your teeth (with whatever means available) has always been a good idea.