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Creative ways people cleaned their teeth throughout history


In the past, some dentures were made of reused hippopotamus teeth. (Photo credit: gumtau on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

If you’re interested in avoiding toothaches — you definitely should be — good dental hygiene is a must. Unfortunately, those who grew up long ago (way before your grandparents even!), didn't have the same great dental tools at their disposal that you have. The next time you complain about your teeth-brushing obligations, remember: it could have been so much worse!

Picking your teeth with feathers

white bird feather


Believe it or not, there was a time when no one brushed their teeth ever... because toothbrushes didn’t exist! Of course, people had to find another way to keep their teeth pearly white. The solution? Animal bones, bird feathers and porcupine quills. Yes, it was once considered a good idea to put every one of those unappetizing objects in your mouth and use them like toothpicks.

Chewing your way to clean teeth

street scene in India with women selling goods on blankets

A woman sells teeth-cleaning sticks in Girija Ghar crossing in India. (Photo by juggadery licensed CC BY-SA)

Another pre-toothbrush option — one that’s closer to the real deal — is the chew stick. Not much more complicated than it sounds, this is simply a twig with a frayed end used to clean teeth. The earliest chew sticks have been traced back to 3500 B.C., but they’re still going strong all over the world, from Africa to the United States.

Scrubbing your teeth with hog hair

close up of a hog

Photo on VisualHunt.com

The toothbrush we know and (kind of) love today first caught on in China during the Tang Dynasty (around 1,400 years ago). Not unlike earlier teeth-cleaning tools, the original toothbrush relied on animal parts: a bone handle and hog bristles. But these early tooth-brushers didn’t settle for just any hog hair. Instantly recognizing the importance of firm bristles, they set their sights on hogs in colder climates like Siberia and northern China.

Brushing your teeth with oyster shells

oyster shells on the beach

Photo credit: EEPaul on Visualhunt / CC BY

Long before the toothbrush was in common use, the ancient Egyptians created a tooth powder to keep their teeth clean. However, keeping anything clean was impossible with the ingredients they had on hand, including burnt eggshells and the powdered ashes of ox hooves. The Greeks and Romans eventually upgraded this recipe, bringing crushed bones and oyster shells into the mix.

Forget brushing, just wear hippo teeth

old dentures made of ivory

Dentures in the 1800s were made from materials like ivory and were expensive. They were difficult to clean and eventually were quite smelly. (Wikimedia/Wellcome Images/CC BY)

George Washington had chronic dental problems throughout his life. (Only one of his original teeth was left when he became the first president of the United States.) For some reason, people seem to think his dentures were made of wood, but the reality is far more, well, gross. In addition to elephant ivory, he re-used the teeth of hippopotamuses, donkeys and even other humans.

Kiss your toothache away

close up of donkey faces

Photo credit: Richard Sunderland on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

We’ve already established that toothaches are universally unpopular, but when you’re stuck with this problem today there are several ways your dentist can deal with it. If you were unfortunate enough to be around in Medieval Germany, however, there was only one option: kissing a donkey. It was believed that kissing a donkey would cure you of toothaches, though we're guessing most Medieval Germans just got a mouthful of donkey spit for their efforts.