A brief history of Toothpaste

MOST OF US PUT IT IN OUR MOUTHS DAILY. SOME OF OF US TWICE, OR THREE TIMES. WE LET COMPLETE STRANGERS DO IT TO US (DENTISTS) AND WE DON'T QUESTION IT FOR A SECOND. BUT WHAT IS TOOTH PASTE? I MEAN, WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF? AND, WHERE DID IT COME FROM?


Image credit http://pzrservices.typepad.com/vintageadvertising/2015/02/vintage-toothepaste-tubes.html - Colgate toothpaste circa 1912

Image credit http://pzrservices.typepad.com/vintageadvertising/2015/02/vintage-toothepaste-tubes.html - Colgate toothpaste circa 1912

Brushing your teeth is such a basic, mundane and mindless task. I can only assume most of you (dear readers) will have never thought twice about this goop going in to your face. Last night, I was giving my pearly-but-coffee-stained-whites a once over when I thought... 

"what exactly is this stuff I'm rubbing all around my teeth?" 

Apart from the obvious clean feeling, minty taste and social benefits of not having Halletosis I can't accurately dictate the purpose of toothpaste. I thought I would find:

The origin -

According to Colgate brushing started way back in 5000 B.C. Babylonians and Egyptians started the trend by mangling the ends of twigs, or tooth-twigs and rubbing them around their mouths. We know this because they have been found in Egyptian tombs next to Sarcophagi. The crafty and herbal-remedy-focused Chinese found some aromatic twigs to chew, that not only scrubbed, it also freshened the breath. This was recorded around 1200 B.C. Not much changed in 6500 years until William Addis was credited widely for inventing the Toothbrush in 1770. Tired of rubbing soot and salt on a rag in to his chompers, Addis fashioned the first prototype. He used what he could find around him. He acquired some horse hairs from a guard. Guard? Yes, guard. He was in prison at the time. The horse hairs were tied through small holes in a rat bone he found and the toothbrush was born. 

Image source http://madeupinbritain.uk/Toothbrush - The Addis style brush

Image source http://madeupinbritain.uk/Toothbrush - The Addis style brush

The image above shows a few examples of commercial adaptations of the Addis style toothbrush. Take a moment to notice the dark colour from the charcoal, bark and (let's be honest) probably lots of other disgusting things British and American 'health' authorities told people to rub around their gums. That of course only applied to you if you were in the upper classes and could afford the stuff.

Tooth powders - 

Before the nice, smooth, creamy paste-in-a-tube, there was tooth powder. Tooth powder, which you would rub your brush in before wetting it, and brushing, was the modern option. It welcomed refinement of flavour, product colour and texture come to the dental care market. Most tooth powders contained a base of fine clay (Betonite usually) chalk, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves and oils for flavour, usually a peppermint. 

SIDE NOTE: Tooth powder has made recent come back with parents and health conscious folk making up their own 'natural' versions of Oral hygiene. You can find a recipe for a modern, hipster spin on tooth powder (which I'm tempted to try) here.

Image source http://connecticuthistory.org/aristocratic-dental-cream-gets-squeezed/ - Dr Sheffield's Creme Dentrifice circa 1895

Image source http://connecticuthistory.org/aristocratic-dental-cream-gets-squeezed/ - Dr Sheffield's Creme Dentrifice circa 1895

Toothpaste -

Toothpaste had a similar timeline, and a similarly dull original recipe. Egyptians and Babylonians brushed with ash, crushed ox hooves, burnt egg shells, oyster and crustacean shells and pumice. The Romans tried to innovate with more with charcoal to help with bad breath. Things didn't change much until 17-1800, in Western Europe, when the recipes became more palatable. Chalk, soap and bark refined in to tins of tooth powder made it to the shelves in corner stores around the world. Brushes resembled the Addis style and things were starting to get a bit more like we see today.

Modern tooth paste first carved a cavity market in the 1890's under the alter-ego Crème DentifriceA creamy version of tooth powder, with a minty zest to leave you fresh and highly polished all-day-long.

The first jarred toothpastes, including Colgate products appeared shortly after, marking the modern age of dental care, and dictating the set up most of us have in the bathroom today.

Image source http://www.spectacledmarketer.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/9_Vintage_Ad.jpg - Obvious gender role issues aside - A vintage Chlorodent ad

Image source http://www.spectacledmarketer.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/9_Vintage_Ad.jpg - Obvious gender role issues aside - A vintage Chlorodent ad

So what is actually in toothpaste -

Generally speaking the wide variety of toothpastes you find on supermarket shelves is the same prior to adding colour, flavour and branding. Toothpaste generally contains a mild abrasive agent such as calcium carbonate (limestone) or aluminium oxides. You will also find Flouride for strengthening enamel, as well as thickening and hydrating agents for texture and product longevity. Artificial colours and flavours give it that fun look and detergent is added which gives us that nice foamy feel and leaves your teeth squeaky clean.

I've been using tooth paste my whole life so I'm not about to stop. Obviously these things aren't doing any damage, but they do sound a little bit chemically. You can check the make up of your paste by finding the coloured stripe on the bottom of the tube. Although the stripes aren't regulated well, they tell you if the paste is natural (green), natural and synthetic/medicinal (red &a blue)  or fully synthetic (black). 

The global toothpaste market is worth US$12-16 billion annually so you can bet your bottom-molar theres some cost cutting going in to each tube.

Happy brushing :)


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