Title: Let us now praise the romantic, artful, versatile toothpick.
Subject(s): TOOTHPICKS
Source: Smithsonian, Jan97, Vol. 27 Issue 10, p76, 4p, 3c
Author(s): Hubbell, Sue; Williams, Jack
Abstract: Explores the history of the toothpick. Famous historical figures who used toothpicks; Various uses of toothpicks; When the crafted, permanent toothpick became the fashion; Charles Forster's role in increasing toothpick usage in the United States; The toothpick factory which he moved to Strong, Maine in the 1860s; The status of that factory in 1997; How a toothpick is manufactured.
AN: 9701070766
ISSN: 0037-7333
Lexile:
Full Text Word Count: 1919
Database: Middle Search Plus
Print: Click here to mark for print.

     

LET US NOW PRAISE THE ROMANTIC, ARTFUL, VERSATILE TOOTHPICK

Flirting, scale modeling, putting on the dog--through the ages, the device has been used for a lot more than dental hygiene

Fifty years ago and more, when I was in the sixth grade, a bad boy named Hughie Mehaffie regularly soaked toothpicks overnight in liquid cinnamon and brought them to share around. Miss Barton, our teacher, seemed to regard them as a 1940s version of a controlled substance, for their use was forbidden. So, of course, we were mad to have them. We would put up our desktops, slouch down behind them and savor, especially, that first mouth-burning taste. The toothpicks would disintegrate into frayed but tasty woodenish pulps as we sucked and chewed them illicitly. Hughie had dreamy blue eyes and long curly eyelashes and I loved him to distraction.

Not so long ago, I was driving across Maine and came to the town of Strong, which proudly calls itself “The Toothpick Capital of the World.” There I saw a towering pile of birch logs stacked beside a mysterious-looking red factory building. I wondered how a log becomes a toothpick, and upon further reflection, I wondered how long people have been using toothpicks, cinnamon or otherwise.

For a considerable time, it turns out. The use of toothpicks even predates our species. Neanderthal skulls, as well as skulls of early Homo sapiens, have been unearthed showing clear signs of having teeth that were picked with a tool. Christy G. Turner, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, declares, “As far as can be empirically documented, the oldest demonstrable human habit is picking one's teeth.”

Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, died a painful death in 289 b.c. when he applied his postprandial toothpick, which had been soaked in poison by an ill-wisher. The prophet Muhammad was such a regular user of a toothpick carved from aromatic aloe wood dipped into the holy-water fountain at Mecca that he assigned its care to a servant known as the “master of the toothpick,” who carried it behind his ear. The Parsi, who migrated to India from Persia between the eighth and tenth centuries, are said to have considered the use of the toothpick a religious rite. The Gonds, arriving a few centuries later, may have buried their dead with toothpicks, presumably for use after afterlife meals. The Renaissance French served them at table, at first stuck into the dessert, and later presented with a plate and a napkin at each place setting.

Over the centuries, those of the upper classes who had the resources to devote themselves to the arts used fancifully shaped toothpicks often made of gold, silver or ivory and inlaid with precious stones. A body of etiquette grew up around their use. Some of it was codified in 1393 in a publication from Innsbruck known as The Tanhausers Court Manners, which advised that poking around the teeth with a toothpick during the course of a meal was as grave an offense against manners as “sneezing and snarfeling into your hand while eating at table.” I found this morsel in a 1967 work, Der Zahnstocher und seine Geschichte (The Toothpick and Its History) by Hans Sachs, complete with 87 illustrations of important toothpick holdings in private collections and museums. Sachs, whose day job was dentistry, called the Renaissance “the golden age of toothpicks” and included in his study reproductions of painted portraits of the wellborn with neck chains from which dangled exquisite toothpicks.

So important was the crafted, precious, permanent toothpick that it became a notable dowry item. The infanta Louise Marie Therese of Parma, for example, came into her marriage to a prince of Asturias with a listed dozen valuable toothpicks. By law, in Saxony, a woman's toothpick was her own to keep, although its holder, often a bejeweled casket, was not. A good-manners book for ladies first published in 1716 defined toothpicks to be silver tools “with which the wench, when something comes between her teeth during eating, can free such particles.” Three ivory toothpicks used by Goethe's mother came to rest in the Goethe museum in Frankfurt, Germany. (Mutatis mutandis, a 23-year-old toothpick taken out of a warm-up jacket that belonged to the former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver landed in a private collection after it was auctioned off for $200 in 1992.)

In the 1800s, after the invention of the steel pen, one Monsieur Bardin of Joinville le Pont, near Paris, found himself the owner of two million geese and without a ready market for goose quills. He produced an early mass-market quill toothpick for those who could not afford the more artful permanent models still being plied by the elite. At about the time Bardin was wondering what to do with his geese, a young man named Charles Forster, perhaps an Englishman, perhaps a Yankee, was keeping books for an English export company in Brazil. There he saw large, hand-whittled wooden toothpicks, made in Portugal, boxed and sold cheaply as disposables. They must have struck Forster as a clever novelty, for he bought some and sent them to his wife in Boston, who offered them round to her guests.

Forster joined his wife in Boston in 1865 and went to work for a wooden shoe-peg manufacturer, who allowed him to experiment with equipment in the factory. Forster was trying to develop a machine that could cut toothpicks mechanically. By 1869, he had created one that was similar in many respects to those still in use in Strong. It could produce in a minute as many toothpicks as Portuguese whittlers could turn out in a day.

After trying several kinds of wood, Forster selected white birch from Maine as the best material (it was easy to manufacture and left no taste) and had logs cut from the forests there delivered to Boston. He then possessed raw materials and a machine but no market for his toothpicks. In an interview, Forster showed himself to be not only an inventor of machinery but a marketing strategist. He said, “The restaurant owners . . . in Boston weren't interested in my toothpicks. They didn't think that proper Bostonians would want to sit around after dinner picking their teeth with a slender piece of wood. . . . By a stroke of good fortune I came across some Harvard scholars. . . . I offered to pay for their dinners if they would help me sell my toothpicks.”

Forster's first target was Boston's well-known Union Oyster House, which is still in business at the same location near City Hall. He explained his strategy. “After dinner, the Harvard student, in a loud voice, was supposed to ask his waiter for a toothpick. If the restaurant didn't have any, then the young man was supposed to complain loudly, and inform the waiter that he would never again eat in the establishment.”

After five or six Harvard men had left the restaurant in a well-rehearsed huff, the Union Oyster House began buying Charles Forster's toothpicks, and a business was born. A few years later, Forster moved his toothpick factory to Maine to be nearer to the source of wood. To this day, the building at the Strong plant location still bears the name of Forsters, Inc., although ownership has long since passed out of the family's hands.

Inside that red factory building there is more machinery and a much smaller workforce than in Charles Forster's time. This is the biggest toothpick manufactory in the United States. “Maybe even in the world,” says Richard Campbell, vice president of Maine operations, “although there is a factory in China that might be bigger.” The computer-driven machinery, like something out of Charlie Chaplin's silent movie Modern Times, with sound effects added, thunders, clunks, clatters and speeds materials on their way. The last person ever to touch a potential toothpick is the logger who cuts the birch. Only ten humans are needed to produce an average daily output of 20 million toothpicks.

Here's how you make a toothpick in 1997. A mechanized beak grabs a log from the woodpile and loads it onto a conveyor belt, where it is cut into lengths about half the size of a fireplace log. These smaller bolts run through a peeler and are conveyed to a steam room to absorb heat and moisture. Soggy and hot enough to be as flexible as a wet noodle, they enter a veneer-cutting machine, from which the wood oozes like long lengths of spaghetti exactly one toothpick thick, and then go on to a slicing machine, where they are transformed into little toothpick-size blanks. On the plant's heated top floor, those blanks are tumbled and dried and then drop down by gravity into lower-level tumblers where they jounce against one another, polishing themselves, each to each, in the process. They drop into still lower machines, which point each end and feed them into welcoming boxes that are whomped shut by another machine. They are ready to be sent to the shelves of stores around the country. Excluding the day spent in the steam room, the entire process from log pile to boxed toothpick takes a couple of hours.

Campbell, who made an exception to the company's no-visitor policy when he took me on a tour, is entrepreneurially vague about how many toothpicks a cord of wood will produce. “I once figured,” he says, “that our production each year, laid end to end, would circle the globe 30 times.”

People do more than pick their teeth with toothpicks. Campbell tells me about a prison inmate on death row who routinely sent him elaborate sculptures made out of toothpicks. A man named Joe King once used 110,000 toothpicks to create a 23-foot-high replica of the Eiffel Tower. It took Wayne Kusy of Evanston, Illinois, two years and 193,000 toothpicks to put together a 16-foot-long replica of the British liner Lusitania (below). A Californian, at what he said was God's bidding, spent five years building a life-size figure of a crucified Christ out of toothpicks, which stirred a theological debate over whether God would tell anyone to do such a thing.

Wayne Kusy of Evanston, Illinois, needed 193,000 toothpicks to complete this 16-foot-long replica of the British luxury liner Lusitania. The elaborate model “breaks” to expose the detailed interior in cross section.

I must report that toothpicks are not without their dangers. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, they account for about 8,800 accidents annually through inappropriate pokings and piercings. But the all-time worst bad news, at least for me, was contained in a newsletter put out some years ago by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency reported an incident concerning a Nebraska firm that was producing cinnamon toothpicks so hot that “five schoolchildren suffered adverse reactions.” The company was advised to tone down its cinnamon dip. It was just as Miss Barton feared. I guess Hughie Mehaffie was a really bad boy, but, oh my, he did have beautiful blue eyes.

PHOTO (COLOR): While ancients gather at a toothy shrine, a modern schoolboy offers his beloved a cinnamon-flavored pick.

PHOTO (COLOR): A man named Joe King used 110,000 toothpicks to build a 23-foot-high likeness of the Eiffel Tower.

By Sue Hubbell

Author Sue Hubbell, a frequent contributor to these pages, has written about butterflies, taxonomy, five-and-dime stores and, most recently, pumpkins.

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By Sue Hubbell

Author Sue Hubbell, a frequent contributor to these pages, has written about butterflies, taxonomy, five-and-dime stores and, most recently, pumpkins.


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Source: Smithsonian, Jan97, Vol. 27 Issue 10, p76, 4p, 3c.
Item Number: 9701070766
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