Brushing with bone and boar hair
This toothbrush is flat, but it used to contain Siberian boar (male pig) hair that was tough enough for cleaning teeth.
A manufacturer carved animal bone into the shape of this toothbrush. They tied the boar hair into tiny bundles, inserted them through the holes, and glued them into place. If the hairs fell out over time, a person could use the slits on the back side (pictured below) to replace the hairs.
Toothbrushes of many shapes
Archaeologists found over 80 toothbrushes in the Market Street Chinatown. Toothbrushes like this one, with four rows of bristles, were usually made in China, while those with three rows were made in the United States. Archaeologists don’t know why manufacturers in different countries made their toothbrushes differently, but people who lived at the Market Street Chinatown used both kinds.
Did the richer people use toothbrushes?
The archaeologists kept track of where each toothbrush was found. Bear Douglas, a lab researcher, compared this information with an old map of the Market Street Chinatown. She found that not many toothbrushes were discovered near the tenements (apartment buildings) where most workers lived. Instead, most of the toothbrushes were found in business areas, perhaps because business owners were the ones who could afford to buy toothbrushes.
However, these business areas contained four barbershops, and barbers were the ones who pulled people’s teeth. Perhaps barbers sold these toothbrushes, and that is why they were found in the business areas.
Historian Connie Young Yu has another theory: since workers living in tenements moved around from job to job, they probably carried their toothbrushes with them in their packs. That might be why not many toothbrushes were found in the tenement areas.
Were toothbrushes for looks or for hygiene?
Why do you think this toothbrush is so big? It could be that people brushed only to keep their front teeth looking good. Perhaps they didn’t pay too much attention to the teeth hidden in the backs of their mouths.
In historic Chinatown, people did many things to keep their teeth healthy besides brushing their teeth. Acupuncturists treated tooth problems by placing needles in different parts of a person’s body to fix the balance of life forces. Herbalists provided remedies to treat toothache and promote general well-being.
Wesley Chan: A dentist’s view of these toothbrushes (video)
Cooling teas and acupuncture: Dental care at the Market Street Chinatown (video)
“There Was a Chinatown Here” by Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project (Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, Stanford University, and History San Jose) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.