Artifact Corner: Victorian Toothbrush

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this beautiful toothbrush from the Mid to Late Victorian Period. The handle is silver plated and the brush head is made from bone, and the bristles are likely boar bristle. The head of the toothbrush can be unscrewed, likely to make it easy to replace the head when the bristles had been worn down. The silver base of the brush has a little door on the end of it, and the head of the toothbrush can fit inside, which has lead to speculation that this might have been a travel piece. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of toothbrushes.

The earliest form of toothbrush was actually a stick. These “chew sticks” as they were described were used as far back as 3500 BCE by the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Chew sticks have also been found in tombs in Egypt. Moving forward in time to the 7th Century, a Chinese monk named Yijing, wrote all about the morning routine of the monks. He said, “”Every day in the morning, a monk must chew a piece of tooth wood to brush his teeth and scrape his tongue, and this must be done in the proper way. Only after one has washed one’s hands and mouth may one make salutations. Otherwise both the saluter and the saluted are at fault. In Sanskrit, the tooth wood is known as the dantakastha—danta meaning tooth, and kastha, a piece of wood. It is twelve finger-widths in length. The shortest is not less than eight finger-widths long, resembling the little finger in size. Chew one end of the wood well for a long while and then brush the teeth with it.” The Greeks and Romans used toothpicks to clean their teeth, while chewing sticks remained common in Africa. In the Islamic world the use of a chewing stick, called a miswak is considered a pious action and has been prescribed to be used before every prayer five times a day.

The first mass-produced toothbrush was made in 1780 in England by a man named William Addis. In 1770, he had been jailed for causing a riot. While in prison Addis drilled small holes into a piece of bone and tied into the bone tufts of bristles that he had obtained from one of the guards. He passed the tufts of bristle through the holes in the bone and sealed the holes with glue. After his release, he became wealthy after starting a business manufacturing toothbrushes. He died in 1808, bequeathing the business to his eldest son. It remained within family ownership until 1996. During the 1900s, celluloid gradually replaced bone handles. Natural animal bristles were also replaced by synthetic fibers, usually nylon, by DuPont in 1938. The first nylon bristle toothbrush made with nylon yarn went on sale on February 24, 1938. And the modern toothbrush was born.

Our toothbrush is in quite good condition, despite it’s age and likely use. The bone and bristles are still in good shape, and the silver handle is beautiful. We are so lucky to have this lovely and functional piece in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
Artist website: