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Giving Homage to the Toothbrush Forefather

We’re sharing this story because it’s fascinating. We will know about the toothbrush forefather now. Have you ever wondered how people cleaned their teeth before the modern toothbrush? People used twigs, rags, feathers and horse or pig hair. The Chinese were the first to use pig’s hair as bristles attached to a bamboo stick, as early as the 15th century. But the toothbrush, as we know it today, was designed by William Addis of England in 1780.

Effective toothbrush

Inventor in Jail

William Addis was sent to jail in 1780, for starting a riot. He had much free time on his hands while at his new home at the Newgate prison, and soon grew very bored. As is the case with many brilliant ideas in history, Addis’s boredom and necessity was the kick he needed to create his simple, yet brilliant invention. As legend goes, he carved a bone from his prison meal and had a prison guard provide him with tufts of boar’s hair. Inspired by the prison broom, he fashioned a rudimentary toothbrush by sewing in the boar’s hair to make bristles. As soon as he was released, Addis set out to dominate the dental care market with his invention.

Separating Legend from Truth

It’s hard to say what Addis fashioned exactly, while in prison. It is uncertain if he had tools at all and his resources were certainly limited. But one thing is clear, he did have a clear picture of what his toothbrush looked like and how to sell it. We know that he experimented on his toothbrush after release from prison. He tried horse hair, badger hair, and later found that Siberian boar hair made the best bristle material because it was tough enough to clean but remained pliable.

The Market Void

Addis was not in jail for very long, he founded his company the same year he was imprisoned, in 1780. Clearly a pivotal year for our inventor. He put up shop in his home in East London, and started commercially producing his toothbrushes, making a very quick success. There was a real need for dental care products at the time, fuelled by increased sugar consumption imported from British colonies. When his son inherited the toothbrush making business, years later, they had sixty employees stripping and carving bone into toothbrushes and outsourced women working from home to sew in the bristles. The toothbrush’s design also continued to improve, in 1844, the company designed the three-row bristle toothbrush.

Toothpaste and Toothbrush

At the time William Addis was in business, the toothpaste most commonly used was regular chalk. Some would add soap, charcoal and even betel nut from south India. In prison, Addis made due with powder from bricks, applied with a rag, to clean his teeth. When he invented his toothbrush, the powder toothpaste would be sprinkled on the Addis brush, and applied to the teeth to clean. With the addition of soap, chalk or charcoal is worked in with the toothbrush to make a toothpaste lather. The chalk or charcoal provided scrubbing power while the soap made application easier.

What About Flossing?

When Addis was alive, people did not floss. Levi Spear Parmly, of New Orleans, was still to invent dental floss in 1916. After Parmly invented dental floss, it was not widely used and he did not found a dental floss making empire. Consider that nearly everybody in America today will brush daily, but only 10% to 40% are willing to floss daily, it was a difficult market to penetrate from the very beginning. Needless to say, it took a while for flossing to catch on.

Plastic Toothbrushes

The heirs of Addis continued to make bone toothbrushes until 1935, when nylon was invented. At the height of wartime rationing, Addis’s company abandoned bone, which was now reserved for food stock. They focused instead on producing entirely, synthetic toothbrushes, not unlike the ones we use today. The nylon bristles were softer and easier to clean.


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Dr. Josh Chocran

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