After Every Meal!

After Every Meal!

By Patrick F. Cannon

Because it is such a traumatic experience, I’m sure you remember your first trip to the dentist. My own first dentist was a leading practitioner of the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, Peter Potter, know to all as “Painless Peter.”

Dr. Potter, who somewhat resembled the famed actor Lawrence Olivier, ended every visit with a booming “remember, you must brush after every meal!” I’m certain that your dentist did – and perhaps still does – utter this admonishment. Indeed, you may have only recently brushed your own teeth after a hearty breakfast, but did you ever wonder when this practice began, and who was responsible for bringing a modicum of cleanliness to the mouths of the world?

The world is full of people who seek to understand the workings of the universe; or to seek cures for dread diseases; or even to understand the labrynthian minds of politicians. But, as you must know by now, it has been largely left up to me to delve into the more commonplace. Who, but me, would undertake to discover the inventor of the toothbrush?

Strangely, it is of surprisingly recent invention. If you were, as I am, an expert on the history of art, you would have noticed that portraits of past notables never showed them with open mouth. Even with the advent of photography, this remained the case. And no wonder. If you actually reached middle age, what teeth you actually had left were likely to be discolored and snaggley. To clean them, your only recourse would have been a twig, which, with enough use, rather resembled a tooth pick.

(It should be pointed out that the Chinese had actually invented the toothbrush in 1498, but limited its use to the Forbidden City, giving the emperor and his court sparkling chompers, but letting the peasants make do with the aforementioned sticks.)

In the West, it was only in 1749 that the handy tool was finally invented. For this boon to mankind, we have Sir Algernon Gascoyne-Dithers (Bart.) to thank. As a baronet, he was a member of the minor nobility. He was, as was common in those days, land poor. While he was able to generate enough income from his holdings to live fairly comfortably, it wasn’t sufficient to buy himself an actual barony. This was, however, to change.

In addition to alfalfa and wheat, Sir Algernon raised hogs. Every year, when they reached the proper size, off to market they went. To ensure that they fetched the best price, his hogmaster, Willy Honker, doused them liberally with water, then brushed them with a broom of – strangely enough – hog bristles. While he was watching this annual ritual, Sir Algie was trying to dislodge some bacon rind from his teeth.  Regular readers of the space will know that civilization often advances after a flash of inspiration. So, you must imagine the baronet picking at his teeth and watching the hogs being scoured. Only genius could have put the two together and imagine a smaller brush to get rid of the pesky rind and any other debris from one’s mouth!

The rest of the story can be quickly told. In total secrecy, he experimented with various combinations of bristles and handles until he came up with something that looked very much like today’s Oral B. He was granted a patent by His Majesty’s government, and was soon selling toothbrushes by the thousands, then millions. As the money rolled in, he was able to bribe the relevant ministers and receive his seat in the House of Lords. When he was asked how he wished to be ennobled, he thought to honor his home village, thus became Baron Algernon of Fuller.


Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon



8 thoughts on “After Every Meal!

  1. In the spirit of Chinese New Year, should we consider that those 15th century Chinese folk you mentioned actually did invent the tooth tool, but because of bad translations, the “chopper stick” was never credited to them? Really am enjoying your wacky strolls through history.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. All cultures have noodles, but the dried pasta we know as spaghetti originated in Sicily and has an Arab precedent. Credit Americans for adding the meatballs, though!


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