Toothbrushes are such an integral part of our lifestyles that it probably isn’t surprising to hear that the history of the toothbrush dates as far back as 3500 BC. The earliest toothbrushes were chew sticks fashioned by the Babylonians and the Egyptians, made by simply fraying the end of a twig. The other end of the twig could be used as a toothpick. The Chinese made their “toothbrushes” in a similar manner, and at 1600 BC they were fashioning chew sticks from aromatic tree twigs that would freshen breath as they cleaned. Chew sticks are still commonly used today, particularly in Africa and the rural United States.
It is believed that the Chinese were the creators of the original bristle toothbrush. These early toothbrushes, which date back to the Tang Dynasty (619–907 AD), featured bristles from hogs in northern China and Siberia, as hogs in that region tended to have firmer bristles due to the colder climate. The handle was made from either bamboo or bone. By 1223, these toothbrushes were being made with bristles of horsetail hair and handles of ox bone. At some point during the next few centuries, the toothbrush traveled to Europe, and since Europeans preferred the softness of horsetail hair, most toothbrushes were made using horsehair for the bristles.
The first mass produced toothbrushes emerged in the late 18th century after an English entrepreneur named William Addis produced his own toothbrush in a jail cell using an animal bone (leftover from a meal) and some bristles (from one of the guards). When he was released from jail, he started a business for selling his toothbrushes and was soon reaping tremendous profits. His business, which was eventually renamed Wisdom Toothbrushes, actually stayed within the family until 1996.
Toothbrushes all featured natural bristles until the 1930s, when DuPont developed nylon. Since then, the use of synthetic materials for toothbrushes has grown dramatically. The typical design of the toothbrush has also changed. The first electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland in 1954. And in the 1980s, Johnson & Johnson introduced the “Reach” toothbrush, which featured an angled handle, more compact bristles, and longer bristles along the outer edge for cleaning in between teeth. The science of toothbrush manufacturing continues to evolve, as manufacturers come up with new designs and materials to promote better oral hygiene.