Tuesday, July 19, 2016

To Brush or Not to Brush

by Connie Cortright

I was doing some writing last night and came up with a question that needed answering. I thought I'd share a bit of what goes on in a writer's mind when working on historical novels.

In my book, the mother yells up the stairs at her girls. "Don't forget to comb your hair and brush your teeth." STOP. Wait a minute. Did children brush their teeth back in the 1920s? What types of toothbrushes did they use back then? Did they have toothpaste or have to use tooth powder? Those are some of
the questions that I needed to answer before I could write another word of my book.

After Googling several topics online - including dental hygiene, dental care, toothbrushes and toothpaste in 1920s- I came up with conflicting information. Some of the sources said that as late as the 1920s "many Americans did not brush their teeth" and other sources said that in the 1920s Americans obsessed with oral hygiene.

Finger toothbrush - Courtesy of Wiki-commons
I'm thinking that it was the case of rural versus city life back then. As in the case of electricity, city dwellers enjoyed the conveniences of electric appliances many years before rural areas experienced anything like that. Residents in cities had more access to dentists and dental hygienists-which first started in the early 20s.

Children in city schools were exposed to the good habit of brushing their teeth twice a day. The public school system of New York had a "Toothbrush Drill" as early as 1912-1913 teaching the children this song: "Here we are coming to clean our teeth, clean our teeth, clean our teeth/Here we are coming to clean our teeth; and we do it night and morning." Popularizing the Toothbrush

On the other hand, toothbrushes were made of boar bristles in the 1920s which tore up the mouth and gums, discouraging people from using them. Many people preferred to clean their teeth with much softer rags. By then the toothbrush handles were made of plastic celluloid replacing the former bone or wooden handles. Softer synthetic bristles, like ours today, weren't invented until the 1938 replacing the animal hair bristles.

For traveling, the finger toothbrush was used. Made entirely out of rubber, the devise fit over a fingertip so that the user could apply the brush to their teeth.

Courtesy of Wiki-commons
The obsession with oral hygiene came in the 1920s with all the advertisements in magazines, newspapers, and eventually on the radio. As the modern appliances entered their homes, people became  more concerned with their hygiene in general - they had more time to worry about this than they did ten years before. Facial creams, hair shampoos, and toothpaste advertisements sprang up vying for the attention of housewives who were concerned about personal hygiene for the first time.

Courtesy of Wiki-commons
Tooth powder, for cleaning your teeth, was originally produced in the form of jars. By 1930s, tooth paste became more popular. Some of the same toothpastes we still have today were already in production then. Pepsodent and Colgate are two of the brand names I recognized in ads. Colgate's Ribbon Dental Cream was popular back then, as was Pepsodent.

So what did I conclude about putting that sentence in my novel? I'll leave it in. I'm sure a mother somewhere in Racine, Wisconsin told her children to brush their teeth back in August, 1926.

Information taken from: "From Oral Health to Perfect Smiles: Advertising and Children's Oral Health" by Heather Munro Prescott.

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