Why Don’t Hotels Give You Toothpaste? An Investigative Report.

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July 3 2013 1:46 PM

The Mystery of the Missing Hotel Toothpaste

A painstaking Slate investigation. 

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Sure enough, the hotel-ratings firms make very precise toiletry demands, yet as a rule omit any reference to dental care products. According to AAA, which gives out diamond ratings to U.S. hotels, a one-diamond establishment must stock two small bars of soap, while a two-diamond place needs to have two slightly larger bars of soap, plus one packet or bottled item. At three, four, and five diamonds, each hotel is expected to provide ever larger soaps and ever-widening apothecaries of creams, lotions, and gels. Bars and bottles, yes; tubes of toothpaste, no.

“Toothpaste has always been a secondary consideration within hospitality,” said Tim Kersley, senior vice president at Gilchrist & Soames, the high-end toiletries provider. Like the hotel executives, he attributes this neglect at least in part to the influence of the ratings guides. But when I contacted AAA to ask why they’re throwing diamonds at bars of soap but holding back on toothpaste, I got the runaround.

“The diamond ratings come from what we typically see,” a AAA employee told me. “Toothpaste is not something they typically put out.”

“So you don’t give ratings based on toothpaste because hotels don’t give toothpaste to their guests?” I asked.

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“Yes,” she said.

“But the hotels told me the same thing—they said they don’t give toothpaste because of your ratings.”

“Hmm.”

“So I guess it’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation?”

“A what?”

“A chicken-or-the-egg.”

“I’m sorry, a what?”

A week later, I got my hands on the first set of Diamond Rating Guidelines that AAA ever published, in September 1987. (The association had been assigning ratings based on less formal criteria since 1963.) These were the earliest toiletry requirements that I could find, but even 25 years ago, toothpaste barely earned a mention. A five-diamond, ultra-luxury hotel was expected to provide two kinds of soap, shampoo, an additional bottled item such as suntan lotion, a hair dryer, a sewing kit, and a shower cap. And toothpaste? A “suggested” amenity, not required.

*          *          *

It’s a strange coincidence of American life that the history of hotel bathrooms and the history of toothpaste have run in parallel but never intersected. In the mid-19th century, only the most upscale hotels would offer rooms with sinks or toilets, and freebie sanitary items—including soap—were rare. According to Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz of the University of New Mexico, author of Hotel: An American History, the private bathroom (and complimentary soap) became a hotel standard only after 1900.

Meanwhile, a swine-bristle toothbrush had been invented in 1780, but up through the end of the 19th century, the practice of dental hygiene was limited to the very rich, mostly by means of powders and mouthwash. In 1873 Colgate began to manufacture toothpaste sold in jars, but it did not become a mainstream good until the development of the collapsible toothpaste tube in 1896. According to Geoffrey Jones’ Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, the product spread rapidly in the years that followed: In 1911 and 1912, Colgate handed out 2 million free tubes to American children and sent hygienists into schools for tooth-brushing demonstrations.

So the hotel bathroom and the toothpaste tube—the free toothpaste tube, even—happen to have arrived at the same point on the timeline of American hygiene, but they seem never to have overlapped in space. By midcentury, the hotel bathroom amenity was still being described as a novelty item. In 1952 a staffer from the New York Times who attended a meeting of more than 100,000 hotel executives at the Grand Central Palace in Manhattan added miniature toiletries to a list of “furnishings, gadgets, and gimmicks” that might soon revolutionize the industry. Conference speakers made predictions for the future, including one that “packaged items for the comfort of guests who have forgotten some of their toilet articles will be distributed free of charge by many enterprising hosts.” What sort of packaged items, exactly? “One set contains samples of cold cream, headache powder, toothpaste, shaving cream, toilet soap, shampoo, eyeglass cleaning tissues and mouthwash.”

A few of these gimmicks—soap, shampoo, mouthwash—would indeed make their way into amenity baskets; others never did. Yet while toothpaste went the way of headache powder in the United States, the evolution of hotel freebies followed another path overseas. When President Nixon visited China in 1972, UPI reported on the Americans’ hotel in Beijing and saw fit to mention that guests were provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, cold cream, hair lotion, and hair spray.

A few years later, a retired Canadian military officer named Byron Button tried to bring the Asian tooth-brushing culture back home. In 1978 he made a business of importing disposable toothbrushes from Japan, with their bristles dusted in dried toothpaste. Button hoped these would become ubiquitous in North American hotels. Needless to say, they did not.

That legacy continues to this day. “Toothpaste is standard in Asia,” said Michele Sweeting, senior vice president of capital planning and procurement at the Four Seasons. Back at home, though, it’s never been considered. “We have really offered the same complement [of toiletries] in North American guest rooms since I started,” she told me. “I think it’s just custom and tradition.”

*          *          *

In 2008 a prisoner in Michigan named Jerry Flanory sued his wardens for their cruel and unusual decision to take away his toothpaste. The 60-year-old inmate had been left without access to dental supplies for 337 days, and he claimed he’d gotten gum disease as a result. The wardens “were aware that he was without toothpaste,” his complaint maintained, and they “were deliberately indifferent to his hygiene needs.”

Flanory went on to lose in court—a jury ruled against him last September—but his Eighth Amendment case reveals that in our penal system, at least, a line of toothpaste runs along the disputed edge of human rights. Free toothpaste has been a source of conflict at Guantanamo: Detainees use it to squirt out poetry, and authorities have withheld it as a form of punishment. It’s notable that at Alcatraz, for many years the nation’s most notorious prison, every inmate received a better set of toiletries than they’d get at any North American hotel: two towels, a bar of soap, a safety razor, and some toothpaste. (In Texas prisons, inmates have to pay for toothpaste at the commissary.)

If dental hygiene is so vital to our self-respect and self-expression—if toothpaste isn’t so much a toiletry as a fundamental privilege—then why can’t we find it in hotel bathrooms? Why should the Hilton give us loofahs but not fulfill our basic need for Crest?