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Sunday, April 20, 2014


Ed Stephens Jr.

Now that we’re awash in new candy and old pumpkins, here’s a thought: teeth. As I brushed away the sweets, I wondered who invented the toothbrush.

And who better to tell us than the folks at Colgate, the company that makes toothpaste and related products. Its website, Colgate.com, has an interesting little history of toothbrushes and toothpaste. I’ll mention a few highlights here.

According to the history, the Chinese are thought to have invented the first toothbrush by using bristles made from pig hair and handles of bamboo or bone. This dates back to the 15th century. The Europeans eventually picked up the concept from the Chinese.

Various refinements to this basic theme were made until DuPont unveiled a wonder-substance called nylon in 1938. Used as bristles, of course, this is what gave us the modern toothbrush, and refinements in nylon engineering meant that by the 1950s toothbrushes had bristles soft enough to become a hit in the marketplace.

So, thanks to nylon, many of us will be chomping down on steak and BBQ ribs tonight instead of gumming down porridge and gruel. Yea, nylon!

Nylon, therefore, deserves some time in the winner’s circle. Legend holds that the name comes from “New York to London.” But according to Snopes.com, debunker of specious legends, the word “nylon” was really a derivation of the phrase “no run.”

More wisdom from Snopes: The inventor of nylon, Wallace Carothers, toiled for seven years before it all fell into place in 1935. The quest hardly has a happy ending for him, though. He later committed suicide by drinking cyanide. What a lousy end for a guy who helped invent one of the most useful elements of the modern world.

Anyway, moving back to the toothbrush thing, I’ll set my gimlet eye on contemporary technology. Everybody I know these days uses fancy electronic toothbrushes. These things beep and vibrate and blink and shake and rattle.

They come with instruction manuals. And spare parts. And electric chargers. And warrantee documents with finely-honed legal disclaimers. This is progress.

But I’ve yet to keep pace with it. When I tried putting one of these fancy devices into my face, it felt like I was chewing on a jackhammer.

Well-meaning people have since explained to me, with grand displays of painstaking patience, the virtues of the oral jackhammer and the techniques for its effective employment. Or, in my case, its effective unemployment, since I’m not going near that thing again. But don’t let me sour you on modern ways; after all, I’m a guy who still has cassette decks in his cars.

Still, in my defense, I’ll note that I am a gear-head by inclination and background. And to my cog-and-bearing brain, anything that vibrates has overtones of pending mechanical failure. Since one mechanical entity at issue here is my face, with an orderly set of 32 pearly whites attached thereunto, I’m not up for any vibration adventures. So I’ll just stick with the old-school brush-and-floss regimen. And, no, I don’t really know what “thereunto” means, but it sounds classy.

Well, so much for toothbrushes. How about toothpaste?

Glad you asked, and we’re back to Colgate’s site for this. Even thousands of years ago people were using various concoctions to rub on their teeth.

And, take note, Saipan, the site says this: “Betel nut was included in toothpaste in England in the 1800s.”

Hey, maybe we’re overlooking a potential industry here. How about “Betel-Brite?” It has a nice ring to it.

In 1873, Colgate started the mass production of toothpaste in jars. In the 1890s they started selling toothpaste in tubes, a technique that, of course, continues today. Fluoride was added to toothpaste in 1914.

For those who neglect to use these products to their advantage, though, I’ll mention another historical tidbit from elsewhere: Novocain. It was invented in 1905. If ever there was a merciful invention, this was it, so let’s note the name of the inventor for posterity. It’s Alfred Einhorn, a German.

So, while the candy man makes dreams come true, modern dentistry saves us from the nightmares.

* * *

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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