The Glorious Toothpick
From the November/December 2007 Issue
The humble mass-produced toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing: inspiration, invention, marketing, trade, success, and failure. HENRY PETROSKI explains.
The plain wooden toothpick is among the simplest of manufactured things. It consists of a single part, made of a single material, and is intended for a single purpose, from which it takes its name. But simple things do not necessarily come easily, and the story of the mass-produced toothpick is one of preparation, inspiration, invention, marketing, competition, success and failure in a global economy, and changing social customs and cultural values. In short, the story of the toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing.
Early wooden toothpicks were found objects, each fashioned ad hoc from a broken twig or stalk with a pointed end. Often, the other end of the twig was chewed until its fibers separated to form a primitive toothbrush called a chew-stick. Some cultures, like the Japanese, developed rigid rules about how such sticks were held and used.
In medieval Portugal, a cottage industry developed to produce straightforward handmade toothpicks, and these splints of orangewood gained a reputation for being the best in the world. Toothpicks made in the Portuguese tradition were common in Brazil in the mid-19th century when Charles Forster, an American working in the import-export trade, found them being crafted and used by natives there. It was a time when the manufacture of just about everything was becoming mechanized in America, and Forster believed that toothpicks could be mass-produced in New England at a cost that would allow them even to be exported to Brazil and compete with the handmade kind.
In another scheme, he engaged Harvard students to eat at local restaurants. After the meal, the students would ask loudly for wooden toothpicks, which the restaurant managers soon felt obligated to provide.
Since Forster had poor mechanical skills, he had to look to others for help when he retuned to Boston to take up toothpick manufacture. He found assistance first in Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, a brilliant inventor who was concentrating on mechanizing shoe manufacturing. At the time, most shoes were held together with wooden pegs, which were pointed at one end so they could be driven like nails. Sturtevant’s genius was to devise a method for peeling logs into long, narrow, and beveled strips of thin veneer, from which the pegs could be cut and driven by machine. Forster’s genius was to see that, with only minor modifications, double-pointed toothpicks could be produced in much the same way.
Forster was soon making toothpicks in Boston, but people there did not see much point in buying quantities of what they could whittle themselves. To sell his product, Forster devised clever schemes. He hired employees to visit stores and ask for wooden toothpicks, which retailers were not accustomed to carrying. Soon after these disappointed customers left, Forster himself would come in peddling his wares wholesale. As soon as the storekeepers had toothpicks in stock, Forster’s shills would return and buy them. These were then returned to Forster, who recycled them to the trade.
In another scheme, he engaged Harvard students to eat at local restaurants and ask loudly for wooden toothpicks, which the restaurant managers soon felt obligated to provide. Having established a market in the Boston area, Forster moved his fledgling manufacturing operation to Maine, where white birch grew in abundance. With the help of Charles Freeman—a Sturtevant employee who had been assigned to develop the toothpick machinery—Forster’s mill was soon turning out toothpicks by the millions daily.
Forster had acquired rights to Sturtevant’s patent for the wooden toothpick and the process that produced it. The Forster enterprise flourished, but when patent protection (and, thus, his monopoly) ended in 1880, competition blossomed and annual production soon reached five billion. It became fashionable for a male diner to leave a restaurant with a toothpick in his mouth and to stand about outside chewing on it. In time, women emulated the practice.
Because of the manner in which they were stamped out of veneer, the first mass-produced toothpicks were flat. Although sold by Forster under the brand name “Ideal,” such toothpicks had drawbacks. They were very flexible and had points that splintered and broke off easily. As a remedy, Freeman devised a process that compressed and rounded flat toothpicks. The new products, branded “World’s Fair,” were a vast improvement, and the patent—the rights to which were assigned to Forster—provided a new monopoly.
At mid-century, Amy Vanderbilt acknowledged that while in America 'one suffers' if a piece of food gets lodged between the teeth, in Europe it was perfectly proper to use a toothpick at the table.
By the end of the 19th century, the annual production of wooden toothpicks in America exceeded ten billion. By 1910, the figure reached 25 billion, and a glut of toothpicks ensued. Companies undersold each other to the point where the price of a toothpick could not meet its manufacturing cost. It was only after the Depression and World War II that production and consumption again soared, with a record 75 billion toothpicks produced annually at mid-century.
This total dropped precipitously by the 1990s, when only a few toothpick companies remained in America. One was Diamond Brands, based in Minnesota, and the other was Forster’s original firm, which had evolved into the Forster Manufacturing Company. Forster’s main surviving plant was in the town of Strong, Maine, which had once been proud to call itself the “Toothpick Capital of the World,” and emblazoned that slogan on its fire truck. But the firm had diversified into a wide variety of wood novelty items, such as checkers and yo-yos.
Today, American dentists have been more inclined to emphasize brushing and flossing than picking, and etiquette writers increasingly look down on toothpick use. At mid-century, Amy Vanderbilt acknowledged that while in America “one suffers” if a piece of food gets lodged between the teeth, in Europe it was perfectly proper to use a toothpick at the table.
The last toothpick factory in Maine closed just a few years ago. Now, boxes of toothpicks bearing the Forster brand name—which is still believed to have some value by its present owner, Alltrista Consumer Products Company, a division of the conglomerate Jarden—bear in small letters the legend “Made in China.” Minnesota is the only place in America where toothpicks are still made, where Diamond, also now owned by Alltrista, churns out eight billion per year. But even that may not continue for long.
I found the debris-laden contents of the plastic bag to be splintered, partially broken, and of nonuniform color: Toothpicks clearly aren’t what they used to be.
China and Southeast Asian countries are turning out toothpicks in incalculable quantities and shipping them around the world. Most Asian timber is typically either from an environmentally sensitive species or of an inferior variety for making toothpicks. An engineer who had worked in Alaska recently told me that he saw vast quantities of timber shipped from that state to China, where it was to be made into toothpicks that would be shipped back to the contiguous United States—presumably at a profit.
But while Forster and other American toothpick manufacturers took great pains to start with high-quality white birch, clean it thoroughly of bark, and never use the dark heartwood, some Chinese manufacturers use the whole tree. Recently in New Zealand, I found Chinese-made toothpicks packaged in a clear plastic bag that revealed its debris-laden contents to be splintered, partially broken, and of nonuniform color. Toothpicks clearly aren’t what they used to be.
China is even making “Japanese toothpicks” for export. The modern Japanese toothpick has a single point, with the other end blunt and encircled with grooves that give it a finial-like appearance. The decorated end is also functional—intended to be broken off at one of the grooves and so signal that the toothpick has been used. The broken-off part also serves as a rest to keep the soiled point from touching the table. Although it may be acceptable to pick one’s teeth at a Japanese table, it is not acceptable to lay one’s used chopsticks or toothpick on the common surface.
The simple wooden toothpick, in whatever form, is the kind of item that most people never give a second thought. But over the years, American inventors and entrepreneurs have sought hundreds of patents for improvements. These modified toothpicks have ranged from those with shapes that better fit the spaces between teeth to those made of dissolving materials to reduce the risk of accidentally swallowing a hard pointed object.
While most patented devices do provide incremental benefits, the additional costs incurred in manufacturing them generally argue against making significant changes to an object that performs its basic function adequately. That’s the case with the standard toothpick. It may not be especially pretty, but it does its job well.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, writes frequently on invention and design. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “The Toothpick: Technology and Culture,” just published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Image credit: photograph by Geoff Spear.
Image credit: photograph by Geoff Spear.