Did Cowboys Brush Their Teeth?

American Western Movies and television shows often paint the erroneous picture that people from the old west had perfect-looking, clean, healthy sets of teeth. It is often the case, however, that what we see on the big screen does not match true history.

Cowboys and those venturing across the American frontier would often use a fresh twig from a tree or shrub and chew the end of it to form a crude brush. They would then use this brush to clean their teeth before tossing the implement onto the ground.

This method is not unlike that of earlier cultures dating as far back as the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians. The diet of the American West in the 1800s was quite a bit different from our modern diet. It was much more rough and fibrous; there was virtually no sugar or soda, and very little that could cause permanent damage to a person’s teeth.

This is not to say that our ancestors did not suffer from problems of dental hygiene. Problems of the teeth in ancient times were similar to those of today; such as poor oral hygiene, halitosis, and various periodontal diseases, to name a few.

Mass-produced toothbrushes have existed since before the American Civil War. While marching to Gettysburg in 1863, regiments of Union soldiers were observed carrying toothbrushes in their trouser pockets. The toothbrush as we know it was not created until the 17th century. These first versions, however, were produced using expensive materials and not everyone could afford one. When the 20th century began, owning a toothbrush was reserved only for the wealthy, as the handle was made of costly materials, such as ivory and bristles of animal hair. It was in 1930 when the first plastic brushes appeared, which were much cheaper to produce.


Did Cowboys Use Toothpaste?

It is unlikely that cowboys used the kind of toothpaste available in their day out on the open range. Although various recipes for tooth powder or paste existed, the frontiersmen of the American West typically had a more unrefined and undisciplined approach to oral hygiene, which meant fairly good business for dentists of that day. For cattle herders of the 1800s, any cleaning of the teeth would have been limited to the above-mentioned twig method.

The origins of our modern toothpaste can be traced back to the 1700s. By 1842, a dentist by the name of Dr. Peabody had the idea of adding a kind of soap to toothpaste. After this, the formula for toothpaste was improved every few years.

In 1850 John Harris introduced chalk as a new ingredient to the current formula. Colgate mass-produced the first toothpaste introduced to the market in 1873. It was manufactured in powder form and merchandised in glass jars.

In 1892, Dr. Washington Sheffield Wentworth, a dental surgeon and pharmacist, developed the first toothpaste to be contained inside a folding tube. He named his toothpaste Crème Dentifrice. The idea for dispensing the paste from a tube came from observing his son Lucius, who was fond of painting. Upon seeing the practicality of the paint containers, Dr. Sheffield decided to apply this innovation, and the first tube of toothpaste was born.

The recipe for today’s toothpaste is fairly simple:

  • Chalk powder which polishes the teeth
  • Foaming detergent to clean it
  • Fluoride, a chemical shown to preserve teeth
  • A gelatin made from algae to bond the ingredients
  • Scented flavors to give a pleasant taste to the product
  • A germicidal disinfectant.


Bringing Toothpaste into the 20th Century

In 1896, William Colgate, seeing the practicality and hygienic qualities of this method, copied Dr. Sheffield’s system and began to pack his toothpaste in folding tubes. This process was accompanied by a robust advertising campaign to promote the product.

After World War II, advances in synthetic detergents led to replacing the soap ingredient in toothpaste with soluble emulsifying agents such as sodium ricinoleate and sodium lauryl sulfate.

In 1901, Frederick McKay, an American dentist from Colorado Springs, began experimenting with fluoride in order to treat the coffee stains found on the teeth of many of his patients, who had otherwise clean and healthy teeth. These stains came to be known within the dentistry field as “Colorado coffee stains.” In 1909, Dr. G.V. Black joined McKay’s experiments and in 1914 they found a successful formula, and the first fluoride toothpaste was born.

In 1955, the American Dental Association (ADA) recognized the effectiveness of Crest toothpaste, which consequently dominated the market and was recognized as the best toothpaste on the market at that time. Since then, the technological advancement of toothpaste has resulted in a wide range of tooth-cleaning products available to the consumer. An overwhelming variety of colors, textures, and flavors are now available to meet the varied tastes of the public.


The Evolution of Dental Hygiene

The practice of oral hygiene comes from ancient times when primitive civilizations sought ways to clean their teeth effectively and stave off oral disease. People from ancient cultures used small sticks of wood or their fingernails. Early native-American civilizations used the root of a plant or rubbed their teeth with their fingers.

Around 3000 B.C. the Egyptians used small branches with frayed tips to clean their teeth. The first recorded dentist was Egyptian. Hesi-Re was responsible for maintaining the dental health of the pharaohs. He used a mixture of ox hooves, charred eggshells, myrrh, salt, pepper, pumice stone, and water for rinsing. In some ancient manuscripts, the addition of urine was prescribed for this mixture, along with crushed flowers or mint. Urine was often used as a bleach in the ancient world.

The first toothbrush used by ancient civilizations was a small branch or a twig with one end worn down to make it delicate and pulpy. Initially, these twigs were simply rubbed against the teeth without any additional cleaning agent, like toothpaste. Ancient toothbrushes have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000 BC. The Arabs used the twigs from the Areca palm plant, softening the ends. Its shape was similar to that of the modern chopstick.

These chewable sticks are still used in certain cultures today. Some African tribes continue to use the twigs of the Salvadora persica, or “toothbrush tree.”

The first toothbrush with bristles, resembling our modern version, originated in China around 1498. Hair was manually removed from the necks of boars raised in the colder climates of China’s mountains and was woven into bamboo or bone handles. China’s colder environment caused the hair of the boar to grow more consistently.

It was not until around 1600 that toothbrushes were introduced in Europe. Europeans traveling back from China brought their newly acquired toothbrushes with them. In those days very few westerners brushed their teeth. Those who did brush disliked the coarseness of the toothbrushes made with boar’s hair and eventually replaced the boar’s bristles with softer ones of horsehair. Toothbrushes made from other animal hair, such as badger, had short-lived periods of popularity, but many people preferred to clean their teeth after meals with a rigid bird feather (as the Romans had done) or use custom-made toothpicks of silver or bronze. In many cases, metal toothpicks were less dangerous than hard animal hair bristles.

Dr. Pierre Fauchard, known as the “father of modern dentistry,” offered the first detailed explanation regarding toothbrushes in 1723. He asserted the ineffectiveness of horsehair bristles and scolded the majority of the population who rarely (or never) practiced any dental hygiene methods.

In the 19th century, French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur presented his germ theory of diseases. After his discoveries, dentists found that animal hair bristles, which can retain moisture for long periods of time, eventually accumulated microscopic bacteria and fungi, and that the piercing of the gums by the sharp bristles could be the cause of many oral infections. Sterilizing animal hair bristles by boiling them had the disadvantage of making them permanently soft or even disintegrating them completely. Furthermore, high-quality brushes made with animal hair were too expensive for most people, which hindered frequent replacement. The solution to this problem would not present itself until the 1930s.

In 1885 manufacturers began to produce manual brushes on a mass scale. The household item became so popular that industries began also using the hair of other animals to make toothbrushes. Hair from the Siberian wild boar was most widely used. This material was imported for many years until the discovery of nylon in the 1930s. As an example of the popularity of boar’s hair, in 1937 (the year nylon bristles were introduced) over 1,322,770 lbs. of swine-hair bristles used for toothbrushes were imported into the United States alone. At the beginning of the century, because of its high cost, the poorest families had to share the same toothbrush.


High Praise for Nylon

Nylon was invented by Wallace H. Carothers at DuPont Laboratories in the United States in 1937. This development began a revolution in the toothbrush industry. Nylon was strong, rigid and flexible, it resisted crimping and because it dried completely, did not retain moisture, which prevented the spread of bacteria. This innovative material became the symbol of prosperity and modernism on October 27, 1939, with the introduction of Dr. West’s nylon stockings and miracle brushes.

The first nylon bristle brush was sold in America in 1938 under the name “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft Toothbrush“. Du Pont gave the synthetic fibers the name “Exton Bristles” and, through an extensive advertising campaign in 1938, the company informed its public that, “The material used in manufacturing ‘Exton’ bristle is called nylon, a word so recently coined that you will not find it in any dictionary“. The company highlighted nylon’s many advantages over animal bristles. For example, unlike animal bristles which were easily detached, nylon bristles were firmly attached to the brush handle.

In 1950, Dupont improved their product by developing new softer nylon bristles. The first generation of nylon bristles was so stiff they hurt the gums. In fact, brushing with original nylon bristles was so painful to gum tissue that at first, dentists refused to recommend nylon toothbrushes to their patients. By the early 1950s, Du Pont had perfected a “soft” nylon that was marketed as the “Park Avenue toothbrush.” This proved more profitable for Du Pont, as people paid ten cents for a hard-bristle brush and forty-nine cents for the softer Park Avenue model.

Our teeth and gums need different degrees of stiffness. This problem was eventually solved when toothbrushes began to be designed with bristle clusters with varying degrees of stiffness. Those bristles that came into contact with the gums were of softer nylon.


The Toothbrush Goes Electric

The beginnings of the modern electric toothbrush came in 1954. The Broxodent, the first successful electric toothbrush, was created in Switzerland by Dr. Philippe-Guy Woog, and later in France by Broxo S.A. The first study to demonstrate its superiority over the manual toothbrush was published in 1956 by Professor Arthur Jean Held in Geneva. Electric toothbrushes were initially created for patients with limited motor skills, and for those with orthodontic appliances. It has been argued that electric toothbrushes are more effective than manual toothbrushes due to the fact that they simplify brushing techniques, prevent the user from using an improper amount of pressure, and produce more brush strokes than manual brushes.

In 1960, the first electric toothbrush was introduced in the United States. The Broxo electric toothbrush was introduced by E. R. Squibb and Sons Pharmaceuticals at the 1959 Centennial of the American Dental Association. It was then distributed in the United States by Squibb under the names Broxo-dent or Broxodent. However, the first electric model that caught the public’s attention in the US was introduced in the early 1960s as the General Electric automatic toothbrush. Although similar to the Broxodent in function, the two were distinct in that GE’s new model was cordless and had rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries, while the Broxodent model had to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Consequently, the Broxodent model in the US differed from its European equivalent in terms of its electricity standards.


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