New Online Exhibit Gives Viewers Opportunity to Brush Up on Dental History

January 9, 2017

Neem, Siwak or Miswak chewing stick

Neem, Siwak or Miswak chewing stick. (Source: khai9000/iStockphoto)

Victorian-era French toothbrush

This Victorian-era toothbrush was made in France circa 1890.

Clean-Be-Tween toothbrushes

These two Clean-Be-Tween brushes have natural bristle heads and salmon-colored Bakelite handles. (Donor: Dr. Donald Yent)

Westinghouse Tek electric toothbrush

Some unique features of this Tek Automatic toothbrush that make it easily portable, include a box-shaped case with a slidable front cover.

You do it twice a day (right?). You probably have a few (or more) of these objects in your medicine cabinet. But you may never have thought about how toothbrushing and toothbrushes ended up being part of your routine. A new exhibit on the Dugoni School's Virtual Dental Museum website seeks to change that. "Different Strokes for Different Folks: A History of the Toothbrush" provides an in-depth look at the story of this deceptively simple little tool, from the toothpicks of thousands of years ago to the introduction of electric toothbrushes in the 20th century.

While the concept of cleaning the teeth and gums was not a hard sell (even in prehistoric times, humans used small sticks to do so), more recent technological developments met with some resistance. "For the average family the electric can opener is silly enough, but the electric toothbrush is stupidity on such a magnitude that it reflects a new all-time low in the intelligence level of our American way of life," wrote one Consumer Reports reader in 1962. However, electric toothbrushes ultimately prevailed, though they happily coexist with their manual brethren.

"By weaving our Ward Museum artifacts into the broader story, I have followed the historical path of toothbrush development while highlighting a few unusual inventions and acknowledging our thoughtful donors," says Dorothy Dechant, curator and director of the Center for Dental History and Craniofacial Study at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. "I think it makes for a good combination and an effective educational approach to the subject."

The exhibit, which can be viewed on the museum's website at, joins several other online collections, including handpieces, dental chairs, Victorian-era business cards and other artifacts from dental history.

The A.W. Ward Museum of Dentistry was founded in 1974 in honor of one of the school's early graduates and a pioneer of surgical periodontics, Abraham Wesley Ward, P&S Class of 1902. Since its inception, the collection has grown from in-kind donations, made primarily by alums. Most of the artifacts date from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. Donated items are catalogued, with description and donor information maintained in an EmbARK database.

The school's Center for Dental History and Craniofacial Study maintains four collections, the Ward Museum being one, to support the preservation and study of dental history, craniofacial biology and evolution.

More information about the collections is available on the school's website.

 Students, researchers and dental professionals interested in studying the collections may contact Dr. Dorothy Dechant, museum curator, at 415.929.6627 or


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Categories: Faculty, Research, 2017