A brief history of the toothpick.

A brief history of the toothpick.

A brief history of the toothpick.

The way things look.
Oct. 31 2007 4:28 PM

Stick Figure

The marketing genius who brought us the toothpick.

(Continued from Page 1)

The phenomenon known as "usage drift" actually began a long time before Forster was making toothpicks. In 16th-century Portugal, there was an order of nuns that supported itself by making and selling confections that were sticky to the fingers and tacky to the teeth. Perhaps to maintain, and even increase, demand for their sweets, the nuns began to make wooden toothpicks, which served not only to clean the teeth after eating but also to pick up the morsels without touching them.

When used in this way with sweets or hors d'oeuvres, the toothpick is once again more than an item with which to pick the teeth. But on a cocktail platter, an ordinary wooden toothpick can appear too common. Thus, there has developed a plethora of "fancy" toothpicks. Gold and silver picks, with equally elegant holders, can stand up to any plate of delicacies. In Portugal, where making toothpicks by hand out of orangewood continues to be a cottage industry, larger and fancier ones called palitos especiales,complete with carved involutes and curly shafts, were considered more appropriate for special occasions. The wooden toothpick topped with colored cellophane—so often seen holding a club sandwich together—is a poor cousin to the Portuguese special.


Cocktails provided another opportunity for secondary toothpick use and further marketing. Indeed, the olive speared by a toothpick has acquired an iconic association with the martini. The toothpick enables the olive to be retrieved without getting the fingers wet, but some fastidious drinkers do not know what to do with the bare toothpick. One fellow, who did not want to put the wet pick down on the furniture, put it back into his drink—and then absentmindedly took it in with a sip. When he tried to cough it up, the thing got stuck in his nose, from where it was finally removed by an emergency-room doctor. A swallowed toothpick can be deadly if it punctures the intestines, certainly an undesirable usage drift. It was an ingested toothpick that killed the writer Sherwood Anderson, and some believe that peritonitis was also the cause of the untimely death of President Warren G. Harding, an inveterate toothpick user.

There are many other examples of usage drift, including the sticking of a toothpick into brownies baking in the oven to test if they are done. This popular secondary use is part of so many baking recipes that in supermarkets now, toothpicks often can be found shelved not among the toothbrushes and dental floss but next to the cake and brownie mixes.

Though readily promoted by manufacturers, usage drift is more often created by consumers of a product. People are natural inventors, and they are constantly finding new uses for common objects of all kinds. The best ideas propagate quickly through the culture and then become embraced by manufacturers as their own. Before there were Q-tips, young mothers wrapped a bit of cotton around the point of a toothpick and used it to clean out baby's ears and nose. This practice came to be recommended by ladies' magazines and advice columnists, and led to the invention of the Q-tip itself.

At first, the hard wooden stick terminating in soft cotton swabs suggested the toothpick connection, but today's Q-tip disguises its origins with a white paper body that blends almost seamlessly into the swab ends. The latest supply of Q-tips bought for our bathroom goes even further in removing the product from its ancestry and infancy. Except perhaps for the ironic admonition to "Keep out of reach of children," there is no hint on the package that these were once made exclusively for babies. On this "vanity pack," Q-tips are described as "the ultimate beauty tool."

Thus, products that result from usage drift over time can ultimately assume an identity that gives little hint of their true origins and once-primary use. The mass-produced wooden toothpick that Charles Forster introduced to Boston in the 1860s has given rise to countless fads, uses, and spinoff products, all of which ultimately owe their existence to his marketing genius, whether we realize it or not.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of a dozen books on engineering and design, the latest of which is The Toothpick: Technology and Culture.