Henry Petroski

 

On his book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

Cover Interview of January 02, 2009

The wide angle

The Toothpick is a book in the tradition of my previous book The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.  I take as my principal subject an everyday object that by its commonness and familiarity is virtually invisible to its users and to society generally.  The very ubiquity of something like a toothpick or a pencil means that it needs no exposition to introduce it to the reader, and so the book can focus immediately on the wider meanings and lessons implicit in the object and its history.

On one level, the wooden toothpick of Forster’s time was a totally regionally produced product.  It was manufactured on machines invented and built in the Boston area out of wood that was harvested in the neighboring state of Maine.  Frugal New Englanders did not at first beat a path to Charles Forster’s door, and so this pioneer toothpick manufacturer had to make them desire his product.  Without his marketing genius, the wooden toothpick might have gone the way of so many forgotten possibilities buried with long-expired patents.  In time, Forster moved his toothpick machinery to Maine, where the preferred wood (white birch) grew in abundance, and thereafter his factories were making not only toothpicks but also the machinery to make them in small Maine towns with little other industry.

No matter how local their origins, however, wooden toothpicks from Maine came to influence social behavior throughout the world.  Like many a new product, at first they were bought and used (ostentatiously) by people of privilege.  By the 1880s, wooden toothpicks were expected to be available in restaurants and hotels, and it was common to find dandies in top hat and tails, accompanied by a crutch-handled walking stick, chewing on a toothpick in front of the most fashionable establishments.  Groups of such gentlemen, especially when they walked several abreast down a city street, came to be referred to as “crutch and toothpick brigades.”  It was not long before young ladies took up the habit, causing no end of commentary in newspapers and magazines.  Like fads generally, such practices were abandoned by the better classes as they filtered down to the poorer ones.  In the early twentieth century, it was expected that books on etiquette address the toothpick matter.

The Toothpick moves naturally back and forth between the technological challenge of mass producing wooden toothpicks effectively and efficiently—and at a profit—and the social and cultural implications of their availability and affordability.  The importance of a single visionary entrepreneur, in this case Charles Forster, who had a foot in both business and society, is central to the story.  Thus, the book also explores the nature of the man and his inability to let go of the empire he built.  The implications of Forster’s unusual last will and testament, in which he tried to direct the business from the grave, thus get several chapters in the book.  For decades after he died, the toothpick business he founded and developed into a world-class enterprise was known legally and commercially as the Estate of Charles Forster.

As small and simple as the wooden toothpick might be, its many-faceted story shows once again that worlds can be contained in a grain of sand.  It was my confidence in Blake’s observation that gave me the confidence that there was a book in a pick.  I spend summers in Maine, and in the late 1990s I became increasingly curious about the repeated reports in local newspapers of the closings of toothpick factories in the western part of the state.  Since this phenomenon coincided with increasing talk about the closing of factories of all kinds across America, and the surge of products made and imported from abroad, I became attracted to the story of the toothpick in Maine as a microcosm for what seemed to be happening to everything everywhere.

Not only were American-made products becoming increasingly scarce, but the foreign-made ones that were available seemed to be becoming increasingly poorer in quality.  There is no comparison between a wooden toothpick made in China today and one made in Maine a century ago.  A box of the Chinese product is full of broken pieces, splinters, and dust—and those toothpicks that are whole are rough, split, discolored, and poorly pointed.  A century ago, a box of Forster double-pointed toothpicks was a model of quality control.  It contained no broken pieces and no splinters and no dust—and each toothpick was as cleanly and smoothly and gracefully formed as a miniature Brancusi sculpture.