Let Us Now Praise the Romantic, Artful, Versatile Toothpick

Flirting, scale modeling, putting on the dog — through the ages, the device has been used for a lot more than dental hygiene

The toothpick has been around longer than our species. The skulls of Neanderthals, as well as Homo sapiens, have shown clear signs of having teeth that were picked with a tool, according to anthropologist Christy G. Turner of Arizona State University. Since ancient times, men of note have used toothpicks. Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, died in 289 B.C. when he used a toothpick soaked in poison by an enemy. The prophet Muhammad assigned the care of this important tool to a servant called the "master of the toothpick."

For centuries, the upper classes used elegant toothpicks often made of gold, silver or ivory and inlaid with precious stones. The tool became so popular that a body of etiquette grew up around its use, resulting in books such as The Tanhausers Court Manners, which advised that poking around the teeth during the course of a meal was a grave offense. The permanent crafted toothpick also became a notable dowry item. When the infanta Louise Marie Therese of Parma married a prince of Asturias, for example, her dowry listed a dozen valuable toothpicks.

The largest toothpick manufactory in the United States was founded by one Charles Forster of Boston, who created a market for disposable toothpicks by having Harvard students eat at local restaurants, then loudly demand a toothpick after finishing their meals. The factory he founded, Forsters, Inc., still manufactures toothpicks in Strong, Maine, where Forster found the kind of wood he deemed best for toothpick making. There, it takes about ten people and a lot of computer-driven machinery to put out an average of 20 million toothpicks daily.

People have found far more elaborate uses for toothpicks than picking the teeth, however. A man named Joe King used 110,000 toothpicks to build a 23-foot-high likeness of the Eiffel Tower. Wayne Kusy of Evanston, Illinois, used 193,000 toothpicks to create a 16-foot-long replica of the British luxury liner Lusitania.

And what's next for this versatile item? Only time and ingenuity will tell.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.