Dental hygiene improved by leaps and bounds when the emperor of China patented the toothbrush on this day in 1498. A far cry from the whiz-bang electric brushes of today, the first toothbrush was a set of hogback bristles set into a piece of bone or bamboo.
Of course, this wasn’t the first tool ever used to clean teeth. In some parts of the world people used chew sticks, also called a chewing stick or tooth-stick. It was typically a piece of twig chewed off at one end until it was frayed. The frayed end would then be used to brush and scrape one’s teeth. (Mouth freshener was built in if the twig came from an aromatic tree or shrub.) In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, practitioners recommended using neem or banyan trees, and in the Muslim world, twigs of the Arak tree were used for its antiseptic properties. In ancient Egypt, some tombs even included tooth-sticks so the departed could keep up their dental hygiene even in the afterlife.
Some cultures also used rags dipped in sulphur oil or a saline solution to wipe teeth. Some did away with the rag altogether and rubbed baking soda directly onto the teeth, an early precursor to toothpaste.
Knives were also commonly used to carve sticks to a sharp point, used to pick at leftover oral detritus, much like a toothpick. In Greek and Roman times these crude wooden picks evolved into brass or silver toothpicks, often with elaborate handles.
The first bristle brush was probably invented in China during the Tang Dynasty, using hog bristles. In 1223, Japanese Zen master Dogen Kigen recorded that he saw Chinese monks clean their teeth with brushes made of horse-tail hairs attached to an ox-bone handle. And in 1498, Emperor Hongzhi of Ming Dynasty China patented the toothbrush. It was a significant advance in dental health, as the stiff, coarse bristles of the hog, set into pieces of bone or bamboo, helped reach crevices in the back of the mouth.
From there, the toothbrush spread to Europe, where Englishman William Addis imported boar bristles from Siberia and northern China to mass-produce brushes. In 1844 Meyer Rhein patented a three-row toothbrush with tufts of serrated bristles and during World War I celluloid plastic brush handles began appearing. In 1938 a DuPont’s invention of nylon saw the advent of nylon bristles and in 1939 the first electric toothbrush, a Swiss design, was introduced, although the first truly successful one hit markets far later, in 1961.
Today, thanks to a bunch of Chinese hogs and an inventive emperor, attractive, long-lasting teeth are no longer a luxury.