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Historians find toothbrush, eleven centuries old

SMILE PLEASE! Archeologists have found toothbrushes more than a thousand years old – and they are remarkably similar to modern ones. They had the same shape, although were made of bone, not plastic. And instead of the nylon brushes of today’s equivalents, the ancient ones had hog bristles. There were different varieties, just like today. There were even double-brush ones, with bristles on the front and the back of the toothbrush head. The ancient toothbrushes came from a 2007 dig in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province (江苏扬州).

The remains of the ancient toothbrushes, with coins shown to give scale.

Historians say that Chinese people began to use toothbrush during Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279AD). But who used them? Were they luxury items, only for the nobles, or were they cheap enough for ordinary people to have?

A portion of Park’s Translation, an ancient language teaching book.

There were no price lists discovered in the archeological dig, but a textbook found a few centuries later give us a clue. The book is called Park’s Translation”(樸通事), and was written in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368). It was a language book for Korean people learning Chinese. One lesson in the book recorded a dialogue in a market:

“Hey bro. I want a shoe brush, a hat brush, a comb and two toothbrushes. How much altogether?

“That’ll be 200 copper coins, the same as market price, of course. I’ll throw in an extra toothbrush and a comb free of charge.”

Now it’s time to do some math. Subtracting the estimated value of the other items mentioned, it appears that a toothbrush cost only 25 cooper coins, which was definitely affordable for common people.


However, there was at least one person in the Song Dynasty whose toothbrush was an elegant exception. Zhou Shouzhong lived in the late 1100s and died in 1208. He was a doctor and the author of “Health Miscellany” (養生類篡).

In his book, he had his own standards about what materials were appropriate for use to make a toothbrush. “People who use toothbrushes made with hard horse tail [bristles] every morning should be cautious of teeth wobbling and toothache,” he wrote.

The sentence reveals that in the Song Dynasty, people brushed their teeth in the mornings. have widely been used to brushing teeth in the morning. Some used horse tail bristles, but he used hairs from a horse’s mane, which was much softer. The part that held the brush was made with a smooth hawksbill. One can imagine that it would not be possible to buy a toothbrush like that of Doctor Zhou with only 25 copper coins.

In the dazzling shops along the streets of the urban cities in the Song Dynasty, there would have been exclusive shops for toothbrushes. Some also sold toothbrushes as a set with toothpaste. Of course, we wouldn’t have had the metal or plastic tubes that we use today.

The paste would have been made with what we would now define as traditional Chinese medicine. A toothpaste prescription from an official medical book in Song Dynasty times described the actual recipe:

“Boil willow branches, locust branches, and mulberry branches together into a thick gel, add ginger juice, asarum and smashed conioselium chinensis, and wipe or brush teeth with the mixture each time.” 


An old book from the Ming Dynasty shows items in a daily care set. You can see how similar they are to their modern equivalents.


After the Song Dynasty, toothbrush use spread. A century later, in the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644, the “daily care set” was updated to often contain a toothbrush, a brush cleaner, a tongue-brush, a comb and a small hairbrush. From the picture (above) we can see the toothbrush at that time was nearly the reflection of the modern one you see in your mirror.

In the 1600s or 1700s, toothbrushes were taken to Europe, and the design was copied and spread.

For about 3,500 years, people had either not cleaned their teeth or cleaned them in ways we would find unorthodox today. They would chew certain sticks. The frayed edges would clean food remnants from their mouths. In Europe, people would sometimes polish their teeth with rags dipped in salt or soot. Since people ate little sugar in those days, their teeth didn’t rot away as fast as ours wood.

A jailbird named William Addis is credited with making the first English toothbrush while locked up in a UK prison in 1780. After he was released, he started a toothbrush factory and earned good money. His company, Wisdom Toothbrush Addis Housewares, still exists today, although is no longer in his family.

The toothbrush habit didn’t really cross the Atlantic until as recently as the 1940s. “GI” soldiers who spent time in Europe are believed to have taken the practice home, where it became popular.

Meanwhile, a toothbrush museum has been set up in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, for anyone who wants to learn the full story of this remarkable item that most people use every day.

In US survey in 2003 asked people to rank items on a list of inventions. The list included cars, computers, phones, microwave ovens, and toothbrushes. “The toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without,” according to the Museum of Everyday Life (.org). Pretty good for an item designed 11 centuries ago on the other side of the world.

Image at the top from Timothy Dykes/ Unsplash

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