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.

Toothpicks. Click image to expand.
Young gentlemen chewing toothpicks in public

Charles Forster was a marketing genius who might have sold a side of beef to a vegetarian. He was born in 1826 in Charlestown, Mass., into an old and aristocratic New England family. While working for his uncle's import/export business in Brazil, he noticed that the natives had beautiful teeth, which he attributed to their use of handcrafted toothpicks. At a time when virtually everything was becoming mass produced, Forster vowed to make a fortune producing wooden toothpicks so cheaply by machine that he could export them to South America.

Forster himself was not mechanically inclined, but he had the business savvy to acquire the rights to a patent that gave him a monopoly on a toothpick-making process. It was a byproduct of the work of Boston inventor Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, whose own passion was making shoes by machine. At the time, most shoes were put together with wooden pegs, and the weak link in the operation was supplying pegs of uniform quality. This led Sturtevant to concentrate on producing long strips of knife-edged veneer from which pegs could be sliced off. Forster saw that toothpicks could be made in much the same way, and by 1870, his operation was capable of producing millions of toothpicks per day. But he could not find a market for them in Boston.

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The Yankee tradition was to whittle a toothpick on demand. It did not make sense to spend money on something one could make for oneself, let alone for something that would be used once and then discarded. But Forster came up with ingenious marketing schemes.

He first targeted stationers, who dealt in small items. When he could not place his product in their stores, he hired personable young people to go to those same retailers and ask for wooden toothpicks. Naturally, the retailers had to turn away the potential customers. Shortly afterward, Forster would make return visits to the stores, where he easily sold his wares. To reinforce the wisdom of the shopkeeper's decision, Forster's shills soon came back to ask again for toothpicks, and this time the sales were made. The boxes of toothpicks were then returned to Forster, who could resell them to the retailer, who now was prepared to talk them up to real customers.

To get toothpicks into restaurants, Forster hired Harvard men. After they had finished dining on Forster's dime at a local establishment, such as the Union Oyster House, they demanded wooden toothpicks. When they were told none were available, the students raised a ruckus and vowed never to eat there again. Naturally, when Forster came around some days hence, the restaurant manager purchased boxes of toothpicks to distribute to his customers.

Toothpicks. Click image to expand.
Ideal toothpicks

Once wooden toothpicks became readily available in restaurants, diners picked them up on their way out and used them for their intended purpose. After they were used to clean the teeth, the toothpicks had a further use. Chewing toothpicks in public soon became fashionable among well-to-do men, and after a while young women began taking up the practice. One Bostonian observed that at lunchtime "nearly every third woman met in the vicinity of Winter and West streets has a toothpick between her lips." This ostentatious primary and secondary toothpick usage in the 1870s served to further the general desire for toothpicks.

It was a common observation of the time that many of the young men standing in front of a good hotel chewing toothpicks were suggesting they had eaten in its fine dining room, when in fact they could not afford to do so. In time, chewing a toothpick anywhere became a sign of contentment and insouciance. In his Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described feeling that he knew the river so well that he found himself cocking his cap and "wearing a toothpick" while at the wheel of his riverboat.

Thus, the toothpick took on a life of its own, serving not only as a utilitarian object but also as a status symbol and even as an accessory. While Charles Forster may never have dreamed that his toothpicks would have such unintended ancillary uses, he would no doubt have welcomed them as extensions of his initial marketing efforts.

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