Chances are, you own a few of them. At home, stored in a holder on the bathroom sink or as an improvised grout-buster in your shower caddy. Travelers keep small-scale spares in their dopp kit and workaholics in their desk or glove box for networking emergencies. Going steady? Perhaps you’ll find one in your partner’s medicine cabinet in the event of a spontaneous sleepover.
Whether your weapon of choice is bluetooth-enabled or simply a parting gift from your last visit to the dentist, the toothbrush is more than just an instrument of hygiene. It’s the bookends of your daily routine, a vessel of refreshment and most importantly, a social obligation.
In fact, in a 2003 Lemelson-MIT survey, Americans chose the toothbrush as the #1 invention they couldn’t live without – beating out the personal computer, microwave, mobile phone, and even the automobile for the top spot.
There’s a certain level of biological hubris in our excitement as children to lose a tooth in anticipation of financial gain, knowing full well that its replacement will be our last. Unlike fish and reptiles, humans and most mammals are diphyodontic – having only two successive sets of teeth unable to be replaced a third time by natural regrowth. Any human who’s lived a life past their tweens understands this and civilizations have been developing solutions to extend their own precious thirty-two to the end for millennia.
As far back as the 3500 BCE, ancient Egyptians cleaned their teeth by chewing sticks called miswaks made from stems and branches of the Salvadora Persica tree. The end of a miswak stick was long and could be chewed to form a soft brush – the perfect tool for all those hard to reach places. Unfortunately, the bark was worse than the bite it was tasked to maintain – often contaminating the mouth with more bacteria. The mummified remains of ancient Egyptians have been found entombed with their chew sticks buried alongside them, providing further indication that oral hygiene is far from a modern concept. It is believed that the miswak’s proximity in death was so one could continue maintaining their dental health into the afterlife. Even in death, the freshest of breath.
While technically not a toothbrush, Romans and Greeks earn a participation trophy for their own early practices, first introducing the usage of charcoal for stain removal. Crushed oyster shells, sharpened bones and carved sticks were used to harvest leftovers in their teeth, often supplemented with charcoal and powdered bark to add flavor and eliminate bad breath. These makeshift spears eventually evolved into durable brass or silver toothpicks. The Chinese were the first to improve on the Ancient Egyptians’ toothbrush “beta” using aromatic twigs around 1600 BCE. The twigs not only cleared the teeth of unwelcome sediment but also disinfected and freshened breath.
Photo Credit: Surrey County Council
In 1498, the Chinese made oral history with the introduction of the bristle brush, most closely akin to your modern instrument of oral hygiene. Using hog’s hair attached to bamboo sticks or animal’s bone, the Chinese concept eventually rode the Molar Express to Europe where the bristles were swapped for feathers and horse hair.
A Brush With Destiny
The toothbrush design we know and love today belongs to English entrepreneur William Addis who, while serving time in prison for inciting a riot in 1770, observed a broom sweeping the cell floor and had a flash of genius.
Neither the European approach of rubbing one’s teeth with a cloth covered in salt and soot nor the adapted Chinese method with feathers and horse hair was particularly effective at reaching crevices in the back of the mouth. After gaining his freedom, Addis began importing coarser boar bristles from Siberia and northern China then attaching them to wood or animal bone to begin mass-production. After his passing in 1808, Addis’ son William took over the brush business and later began manufacturing four distinct toothbrush models to be sold to European consumers: Child’s, Lady’s, Gent’s, and Tom Thumb. After remaining in family hands for 216 years, the Addis toothbrush brand bit the dust in 1996 following a management buy-out.
The Addis Company may have been the first to sink their teeth into mass production of the toothbrush, but the first patent for the tool wasn’t submitted until 1857 by American H.N. Wadsworth. Although, mass production did not begin in the US until some thirty years later in 1885, around the time Colgate first introduced its toothpaste in a tube. Addis was producing around 1.8 million units per year by 1926, even supplying their brushes to troops in World War I and II. In 1938, Dupont introduced the first plastic-handled toothbrush with rubber and nylon bristles to the US, the impeccably named Doctor West’s Miracle Toothbrush (free band name up for grabs right there).
If not for the Addis Company’s provisions of toothbrushes in WWII, Americans would not have adopted Dupont’s nylon innovation. A testament to the power of word of mouth, the disciplined hygiene habits of soldiers fighting in the European Theater eventually rubbed off on US consumers back home, developing into the rigorous concern for good oral hygiene that made the toothbrush America’s #1 necessity today.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Electricity met ivory in 1960, with the invention of the first battery-powered toothbrush in Switzerland, paving the way for an entirely new market of opportunity. The oral electric market in 2018 was reported to have generated a revenue of $2.5 billion and “toothsayers” at Grandview Research predict that number to increase at a CAGR of 5.8% over the next 7 years. However, supersonic brush speeds, Bluetooth integration and other varieties of “Electric Mayhem” don’t necessarily guarantee shareholders a visit from the Tooth Fairy – sometimes simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
Statistics show that over 265.97 million people in the United States currently use a manual toothbrush. The global manual toothbrush market trumps that of it’s electric counterpart, predicted to reach $7.5 billion by the year 2026 with a CAGR of 6.9%. While both markets are expected to witness significant growth due to the increased awareness of oral hygiene, people are adapting slower to the electric alternative because much of said growth is coming from rural and low-income regions.
Business Insider’s Steven John, points out that many consumers forgo the investment in electric brush head replacements because they are often more expensive than their rudimentary rivals and can be less-friendly for users with sensitive teeth and gums. Manual brushes never run out of power, and there’s always a chance a forgetful houseguest may need a spare from your cabinet cache. In addition, manual toothbrushes frequently live second lives: “there’s no better implement for cleaning grout or detailing the rims on your car.”
It is expected that Africa and the Middle East will be the fastest growing market leading into 2026 due to the increased inclination for manual toothbrushes along with the rise in consumers’ disposable income in these regions. The growth of the electric market will still see an increase in adoption with the rise of disposable income, improved standard of living, and adapted designs for teeth whitening and those with sensitive teeth.
Moments of Tooth
So how exactly do you measure a life in a year? A study by Delta Dental found that 70% of Americans brush their teeth twice a day for 2 minutes, typically once before bedtime and once when they wake up. Forgoing daylights and sunsets, the average American will spend 1,460 minutes brushing their teeth annually, with an estimated 114,887 minutes (a whopping 1,915 hours) throughout their lifetime. Based on the ADA recommendation to change your toothbrush once every 3 months, you should expect a minimum of 315 lifetime replacements from infancy until you finally bite the big one.
We often forget those little, clockwise rituals can serve as the pièce de résistance of first impressions – it always has. From the miswak stick to boars hair tied to bone, to electric machinery designed to minimize bad dentist’s office visits, the toothbrush has long been a part of human history. So, when you’re home tonight, counting brush strokes and scrubbing those pearly whites, take a second to think about all the history and innovation that went into the little device that makes your smile shine.
Your toothbrush can be the difference between a good date and a bad date; a good interview and a bad interview; and most importantly, a smile that strengthens your self-esteem – just don’t forget to scrub your tongue too.