Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Talking about toothbrushes

MoDiP has many toothbrushes in its collections. There are gimmicky ones like the thermochromic example, with a handle that changes colour with heat from the hand, or one that glows-in-the-dark. There are those conceived by well-known designers such as Philippe Starck and Martyn Rowlands. There are ergonomic toothbrushes with special grips, including one manufactured specifically for babies that incorporates a teething ring. There are toothbrushes made for travel and single-use, whilst others address plastics waste by offering replaceable heads. There are electric versions, interdental examples and ones with special mouldings for cleaning the tongue.

They all serve to provide an interesting glimpse into changing oral hygiene trends, but my absolute favourite has to be the Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, acquired during lockdown and currently waiting to be catalogued (see image below). This fantastic example is unused, believed to have been traded/gifted to a Briton by an American GI during WWII. It is particularly special because the Miracle-tuft was the first successful commercial application of nylon (you can read more about this wonderful material here).


Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, c. 1940–1945 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The Chinese are credited with inventing the concept of a bristle toothbrush in 1498, which they brought to Europe in the 17th century. One hundred years later, William Addis developed the first mass-produced toothbrush (involving some 53 separate stages) in London in 1780. Despite other manufacturers joining the market, the toothbrush remained a luxury item accessible only to the wealthy until the late 19th/early 20th century.

Natural materials such as wood, ivory and horn were all used for the handles, but bone soon became the preferred choice due its cheapness, availability and durability in withstanding the manufacturing processes. For the bristles, horse and badger hair were sometimes used but boar became the most popular because it was stiff enough to clean the teeth whilst being sufficiently flexible to avoid damage.

Dental catalogues first started to advertise synthetic handles in 1893, made of cellulose nitrate and offering no unpleasant odours when wet (such as those associated with bone), in a wide variety of colours. Technological advancements soon introduced improved plastics such as cellulose acetate and polymethyl methacrylate, but the bristles remained boar until February 1938 with the introduction of ‘Exton’ in the Dr Wests’ Miracle-tuft.


‘Exton’ nylon bristles. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Advertised as having none of the undesirable qualities associated with natural bristles, the ‘Exton’ nylon would not break, split or shed, it would not scratch tooth enamel, was 100% waterproof so would not get ‘limp or soggy’ when wet, would dry quickly so was hygienic and it would last twice as long. The innovative new toothbrush was initially sold for 50 cents, packaged in a sealed, glass tube.

During the war, the brand utilised propaganda in its advertisements, suggesting the wartime need to keep healthy for victory was ‘making thousands of Americans realise that their old toothbrushes just won’t do!’ This excellent addition to MoDiP’s collections includes 14 contemporary adverts dating from 1940-1957, a few of which can be seen in the image below.


‘Life’ magazine adverts. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer


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