In our last blog post, we explored the history of dental floss. But before dental floss, there was the toothpick to help people get food out of their teeth. Thus, today we’ll take a look at the history of the toothpick.

Cottonwood Park Dental is the best family dental practice in Richardson and the surrounding areas. We offer general dentistry care, as well as cosmetic dentistry and dental crowns. Committed to compassionate and quality care, our family dental clinic offers a great new patient special. Contact our dental office today for details!


A toothpick is a small, hand-held device that is usually pointed that is used to remove food particles from your mouth. Traditionally, it is made out of wood, plastic, bamboo, metal, bone, or any other material with a sharp point. Cottonwood Park Dental notes that the toothpick predates the toothbrush and in fact was the first form of dental care invented by humans.


Early humans used wood or grass to remove substances from in-between their teeth. Archaeologists know this from the skulls that have been found that show clear signs that something was used to pick food from in-between their teeth. Bird claws, seashells, walrus whiskers, and others were used toothpicks as well.

Once metal was invented and wielded, metal toothpicks became in vogue. They lasted longer and were turned into status symbols, as they were made out of precious metals, such as silver and gold. Roman Emperor Nero was famous for many things, one of them being his use of silver toothpicks at important banquets. Queen Elizabeth I was given six gold toothpicks as a gift, and in one of her portraits, she is shown with a gold toothpick hanging around her neck. In the 1600s, nobles turned toothpicks into fashion symbols, encrusting them with gems and the like. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the toothpick would be brought to the masses.


An American man named Charles Forster invented the modern toothpick in 1869. He stole the idea from local farm workers in Brazil who made toothpicks. He decided to mass produce the idea, and he was smart enough to patent his invention.

Like dental floss, mass produced toothpicks did not take off right away. Most people made their own toothpicks, and back in the day when money was used to purchase only necessities, no one was willing to pay money for something they could make themselves. However, Forster was a marketing genius. He used a trick on storekeepers around the nation, whereby he would hire young people to go into stores and ask for toothpicks. Of course, the retailers would send these customers away. Then Forster himself would show up, and he would usually sell a box of his mass produced toothpicks to the store. Then he’d send in hired people to actually purchase these toothpicks to reinforce the value. Then, since the storekeepers had the toothpicks, they’d have to sell them, which they did.

Forster used the same idea on restaurants. Here, he’d hire Harvard students who were usually well-to-do young men. He’d send them into a restaurant and pay for their meals if afterwards they would ask for toothpicks. Being told there was none, the men were then instructed to throw a fit and vow never to eat there again. Forster would come along in a few days time, and naturally sell toothpicks to these restaurants.

Cottonwood Park Dental in Richardson notes that the use of toothpicks became a fashion statement and soon led to the habit of chewing them in public, which Mark Twain helped to institute in his wildly successful novels of the late 1800s. Toothpicks became a sign that the food inside a restaurant from whence these people came from who were chewing toothpicks was good.


Toothpicks have embarked upon a career that involves more than just your standard oral hygiene use. Most people have been to parties where eau d’oeuvres have been served on trays with toothpicks sticking out of them in order to grab the easier. They are used to pin down sandwiches and to test to see if your banana bread or brownies are done in the oven. They are used to clean dirt out from under your fingernails and to pick locks.

Toothpicks are used in conjunction with cocktail drinks, most notably with the Martini. Olives will be attached to the toothpick so you can remove them without sticking your fingers in your drink. However, that leaves a dilemma on what to do with the toothpick once removed from the drink. Cottonwood Park Dental in Richardson warns that toothpicks have been swallowed, which can be deadly. Just ask noted writer Sherwood Anderson who died of peritonitis, which is a hole in your intestines that leaks fluids into your body’s cavity, caused by an ingested toothpick. Some believe peritonitis may have killed President Harding as well who was a huge toothpick user, but he did not have an autopsy so that theory remains unproven.

Humans are ingenious and will use whatever is lying around to suit their needs. Hence, moms began using toothpicks coated in cotton swabs to clean out their babies’ ears and noses. The tip started to spread, landing in advice columns and magazines of the day. Eventually, Leo Gerstenzang saw his wife use the same trick and founded the Q-tip company. If you look at a Q-tip today, it is a toothpick with a bit of cotton on it, but the toothpick is disguised in white. Ingenious in our books.

Toothpicks do come in flavors and some are meant to be chewed. However, the toothpick is much the same as it was when Forster first sold his over 150 years ago. Billions of toothpicks are used around the world, most notably in China who has instituted the toothpick as part of their after-meal ritual.


Toothpicks, when used for cleaning your teeth and not touching up paint, cleaning your phone, or teaching your first grader how to count, are great for good overall oral hygiene. While dental floss is better for getting the food in-between teeth, toothpicks are great for cleaning cracks and crevices.

Cottonwood Park Dental in Richardson offers the best cosmetic dentistry, from root canals and dental crowns to extractions and composite fillings. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff can help you get started, answer any questions you may have, including about insurance and billing, and help you set your dental appointment. We offer dental care financing for your major dental care needs, such as reconstructive work or root canals needed. Our mission is to help you stay healthy through the care of your teeth.

Preventative care is one of the best things you can do for your teeth. While we recommend you get your teeth professionally cleaned once every six months, it’s the daily care and maintenance of your teeth that matters the most. Regular brushing, flossing, and toothpicking is vital for a healthy smile and gums. When you take care of your teeth, they will take care of you. Call us today for your next professional dental cleaning!