Before 1498 People Didn’t Brush Their Teeth

It wasn’t that long ago that brushing one’s teeth was not commonplace, less than a century ago. It had nothing to do with the invention of dental tools, not totally. We had the means for hundreds of years.

Brushing one’s teeth wasn’t cultural mandated until the last century, not long before most of our lives began. It was a little like going to the gym today. Some folks did it, others couldn’t start the habit.

In truth, humanity hasn’t been so dependent on the dental care we have in the modern age of globalized farming. Quick and easy access to massive amounts of sugar has changed the tooth game. Thanks to that, today’s dental care industry is massive and profitable. It all started in China, in 1498…

Emperor Hongzhi of Ming Dynasty China

Emperor Hongzhi |

It was 519 years ago, on June 26, 1498, the day Emperor Hongzhi patented the toothbrush. Chinese monks may have been brushing with horse hair brushes since the 1200s, but Hongzhi was the first to patent the idea.

His design was simple, some short-cut swine hairs (boar) mounted into one end a piece of bone or bamboo. Had he any idea what would come of his idea, he might have frowned.

Modern toothbrushes wind up either in landfills or as part of the islands of plastic floating in the ocean. Sea animals try to eat them, then die.

Prior to Hongzhi design, dental care was by whatever means necessary. Many people chewed sticks or reeds to clean their teeth. A branch from a fragrant miswak tree worked perfectly.

One would chew the wood until it frayed, making it possible to use the frayed end for scrubbing the surface of the teeth. The right fragrance would also freshen the breath.

If a stick wasn’t available, a knife or anything sharp worked for picking food bits out of the teeth, but again, people were playing with a different deck of cards back then.

Industrial Revolution

Before we had mass production machines, shipping lanes, and refrigeration, people ate less variety in most places. They had access to sugar, but not in the massive quantities we have today, not even close.

Sugar is the enemy of enamel, the protective coating on our teeth. While pre-industrial humans didn’t have sugar, they also didn’t have orthodontists. Unless graced with perfect teeth genetics, one’s mouth was a collection place for bits of food.

Proteins, especially, stink as they age. The biggest issue for teeth was keeping them free of rotting food because nobody wants bad breath.

Folks were not brushing to maintain a good dental regiment. The idea of preserving the teeth for old age is a rather new concept. Dental care prior to the 20th century was more like reactive, not proactive.

Dupont Company

European adventurers took Emperor Hongzhi’s toothbrushes back to Europe with them, along with other craft goods and potions, introducing the East to the West. An Englishman named William Addis reportedly imported boar bristles from Siberia and northern China to mass-produce brushes. He might have done better selling the potions brought back from China.

It wasn’t until WWI, when an 1844 invention by a New York dentist, Meyer Rhein, made its way through the mouths of troops in the War. His brush had three rows of bristles for cleaning the teeth. It was a big step in the right direction.

The big breakthrough was in 1938 when the Dupont company invented nylon. By then, people were starting to feel the pain of our sugary increases. Dupont sold their nylon bristled brushes as “Doctor West’s Miracle Tuft.” They weren’t much different than what folks use today.

Thanks to the folks at Dupont, we’re not brushing our teeth with animal hairs anymore.

Now if we could figure out how to make a biodegradable version of the toothbrush, that would be great. Were we to accomplish that, somewhere out there, Emperor Hongzhi would smile.