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.

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.

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