Henry Petroski

 

On his book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

Cover Interview of January 02, 2009

In a nutshell

The Toothpick is a technical and cultural history of what is arguably the simplest of manufactured things.  A wooden toothpick consists of a single part made of a single material and intended for a single purpose.  Yet in spite of its apparent simplicity, the toothpick has a long history that is full of lessons about design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, competition, and intellectual property—all of which are highly relevant to our global economy today.

The story of the toothpick is as old as civilization, and anthropologists have described picking one’s teeth as mankind’s oldest habit, evidence of it having been found in the form of grooves from aggressive toothpicking on two-million-year-old fossilized teeth.  This book traces the evolution of the toothpick from found objects like grass stalks used in prehistoric times to the deliberately made metal, wood, and plastic tools of modern times.

The core of the book tells the story of the development of the mass production of wooden toothpicks, which was the brainchild of Charles Forster, a New Englander who worked in Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century.  There, Forster noticed that natives had beautiful teeth, which he attributed to their use of handcrafted wooden toothpicks.  At a time when machines were being invented for the mass production of everything from steel pins to leather shoes, Forster determined to do so for wooden toothpicks.  His dream and goal was to make them so efficiently in New England that he could export them to South America at a profit.

With the monopoly guaranteed him by patent rights, and with clever marketing schemes, Forster succeeded in building a fortune on toothpick manufacture.  At one time, 95 percent of all wooden toothpicks were made in Maine, and the Forster brand became known worldwide.  With success came competition, however, not only domestically but also internationally.  By the end of the twentieth century, American toothpick plants were having a difficult time competing with foreign products, and the last Maine factory closed about five years ago.  Today, there are no wooden toothpicks made in the U.S.  The story of the toothpick industry is the story of American industry generally.

This book also chronicles the way mass-produced toothpicks influenced social behavior.  Changing and competing attitudes about toothpick use in public were shaped in part by the novelty of the disposable wooden toothpicks first as introduced by Charles Forster and later by their efficacy in promoting dental hygiene.  Different cultural perspectives on toothpick use are also described in the book.