The toothpick is a tiny wooden object, to be used on a daily basis for many people which doesn’t arise any curiosity and that, once used, inevitably ends up in the bin. Despite its simplicity though, the story of this tiny object is extremely ancient and saw its shape changing drastically throughout the centuries, all the way to become that common everyday little wooden thing in the 19th century.

The most ancient toothpicks

The archaeologists did not discover the physical evidence of prehistorian toothpicks yet. These tools were, most likely, made of wood back then as well, hence with a good biodegradability. Either way the signs on the skulls of  the Neanderthals and first Homo Sapiens are unequivocal: even the prehistorian men were used to cleaning their theeth with toothpicks.

The very first documented use of the toothpick dates back to 1,8 millions of years ago in the remains found in a site of Dmanisi, in Georgia. On the root of a tooth of the jawbone there have been found signs of scratches from toothpick use.

Below: skull of a Homo Georgicus, found in Dmanisi, Georgia. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

By moving on in the history line, the toothpick became common objects for the wealthy classes since the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Siceliot historian from the 1st century BC Diodorus Siculus talked about it when he explained how Agathocles, tyrant from Syracuse, was killed with a toothpick wetted with poison. The toothpicks of the time arrived all the way to use due to the more resisting material they were made of: bone or precious metals.

Below: Roman toothpicks preserved at the British Museum in London. Picture by Fæ shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The choice of the precious metals to create a toothpick is index of a high consideration of such an object for the people of the time. In the Middle Ages, gifting such a tool in gold of silver was a precious and extremely appreciated present, prerogative of only wealthy classes. In the 19th century, Louise Marie Thérèse d’Artois first duchesse then regent of Parma, had in her dowry 12 precious toothpicks.

Below: pendent with a toothpick from the 16th century preserved at the British Museum of London

Removing the sweets

The toothpick were produced in series since the 16th century by the nuns of the Mosteiro de Lorvão in Coimbra, Portugal. The tiny sticks were used  for the teeth but also in order to clean their fingers from the sticky residues coming from the sugared almonds produced by them. Despite the lack of historiographic sources about the exact use of the tool, the toothpicks were supposedly used to remove the residues of the sweets stuck between their teeth.

Below: detail of the painting “The wedding at Cana” by Paolo Veronese. A womancleans her teeth with the ancient object. The painting is preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The area of Coimbra became popular for the production of toothpicks, exported in Europe and the Americas. In the 19th century the American businessman Charles Forster discovered this object while on a trip in Brazil, back then under the influence of Portugal.

The toothpick King

Forster, American model of businessman from the 1800’s, started to think through and purchase the technology that would have given him the chance to produce those little sticks. He involved Charles Freeman, active in the production of machines for footwear; together the two men realised the first factory of  toothpicks in the state of Maine, US. The first version of the object was flat, then later on they assumed their cylindrical shape we still know them with. The first challenge was creating a demand for their product, both in the working class and in the upper class.

How to create such a need amongst people who were used to producing these tools themselves?

Forster had a stroke of genius: he hired two actors to go and ask for toothpicks in several shops; the salesperson would answer negatively to that request and the Forster was going to the same shops suggesting his product.

Below: the patent for the toothpick from the 24th of March 1891 presented by Charles Freeman. At the centre the design of a tiny toothpick. Picture shared via Google Patents

The aggressive marketing that Forster applied did not reached only the shops but also the restaurants. He set up over the top scenes where the actors, at the end of the meal, were asking for the toothpicks to the waiters. When they were answering that they did not have them, the actors then were going through noisy reactions, complaining in an animated way about the absurdity of not having them in a restaurant.

The small village of Strong, in Maine, became world capital of the toothpick. Curiously, the area counted only 1,000 inhabitants yet here there was a production of over 500 millions of toothpicks a year, already back in 1800. The most popular moment was during the 50’s when, at the end of the ww2 the Americans had exported the habit of the toothpick both in Europe and Asia, spreading then all over the world.

The global market and the Chinese production though put in knee the Forster Manufacturing Company, which stopped its production in 2003, after a century of history.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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